US Forest Service relies on aggressive attack of small Summit County wildfire with resources tied up around the country
1-acre Williams Fire north of Silverthorne now 100% contained
The Williams Fire south of Heeney is now 100% contained, according to Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi.
The fire ignited the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 14, on U.S. Forest Service land between Williams Peak and Chokecherry Gulch, just south of Green Mountain Reservoir. Some precipitation and a considerable aerial response helped firefighters to keep the wildfire under control in the following days.
“(Monday) was a good day,” Bianchi said. “They did a lot of mop up. There are only a few heavy (fuel sources) still in the interior that are providing a little bit of heat. But for the most part, we’re really happy with the progress over the last couple days, and I feel comfortable calling it 100% contained at this point.”
Bianchi said the fire burned about an acre and that firefighters will continue to monitor the area over the coming days to try to identify any remaining hot spots. He noted that a multimission aircraft flew over the site the night of Sunday, Aug. 15, and didn’t spot any additional ignitions outside the fire’s perimeter.
While the blaze didn’t cause fire managers too much trouble, it wasn’t necessarily an easy job for firefighters, who had to use chain saws much of the way from the road up to the fire area where they could start building containment lines. The fire’s remote location and difficult access helps to explain the aggressive response from the U.S. Forest Service, which included two single-engine air tankers and two helicopters in addition to crews on the ground.
Bianchi said the current wildfire situation around the country also played a part in the Forest Service’s decision to launch a forceful initial attack on the blaze.
“We just do not have the resources if this thing would have gotten bigger,” Bianchi said. “The idea is if you hit it hard at the beginning and get it controlled a little bit, it doesn’t have the potential to get bigger, and we won’t need additional resources that just aren’t available. Across the nation, we’re pretty strapped as far as aviation as well as crews.”
Bianchi said the National Wildland Fire Preparedness Level is currently at Level 5, the highest level on the National Interagency Fire Center’s scale. The preparedness level is elevated to Level 5 when 80% or more of national firefighting resources and personnel are committed to wildfires. The fire center elevated the country to Preparedness Level 5 on July 14, the earliest it’s been activated in at least a decade, according to the Forest Service.
“Every summer, I would say we get to that Level 4, sometimes Level 5, depending on weather and if fires are happening across the nation,” Bianchi said. “I know it seems a little confusing because we’ve had a little precipitation; we haven’t had a lot of fires here on the Western Slope this summer. But nationally, looking outside of that, there’s a lot happening.”
The evidence of Western wildfires is evident almost daily in Summit County of late, with smoke drifting into the area and settling in the valley. According to data from PurpleAir.com, Summit County’s air quality Tuesday, Aug. 17, ranged between readings of about 78 and 94, which are considered acceptable levels based on the U.S. Air Quality Index.
The storms locally have been somewhat of a double-edged sword. Recent rainfall has increased the moisture levels for finer fuel types, like grass and pine needles, and helped to push the smoke out of the area. But Bianchi said heavy timber in the forest is still quite dry and that there is always a chance lightning strikes ignite a blaze, as was likely the case with the Williams Fire.
“This happens every year,” Bianchi said. “We anticipated this, that as the summer goes on, those larger materials would still remain relatively dry. In Summit County, we’ve just got so much dead still — on the ground and standing dead from the mountain pine beetle — that we’ve just grown to recognize this and prepare for it.”
Despite a tame wildfire season in Summit County and on the Western Slope — at least so far — Bianchi said community members should stay vigilant and continue to act responsibly when camping and recreating in the forest.
He also lauded the fuels reduction work that Summit County and the Forest Service have been able to accomplish over the past few years, thanks in large part to tax revenue raised from Summit County’s Strong Futures initiative approved by voters in 2018.
With the extra funds, Bianchi said officials have gone from averaging about 1,000 acres of wildfire mitigation projects in the county to between 1,500 and 2,000 over the past three years.
“We’ve been able to increase our pace of scale on the work we’re doing across the county,” Bianchi said. “I think when we have things like the Buffalo Fire, and people can see the importance of the fuels reduction and fire prevention work, it speaks volumes. You’ve got a lot of support. I think historically that wasn’t the case here in the county. People were concerned seeing trees cut, but people have come around and understand it.”
The Forest Service kicked off a new logging project this week near Indiana Creek, above Goose Pasture Tarn southeast of Breckenridge. Bianchi said the Forest Service has had its eye on that location for some time but couldn’t get in for mitigation work before now due to budget concerns and roadwork that needed to be completed as part of the project.
“We signed a (memorandum of understanding) with the town of Breckenridge in 2019 to collectively agree to work in there where it’s needed in order to improve the watershed health, and that includes some of this preventative work,” Bianchi said. “If a fire would have happened in that drainage, there’s erosion and sediment that could come down and cause problems for the tarn and the water drinking supply. So it is a great project.”
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