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June 11, 2012
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Were fires accidental or deliberate?

VAIL - A series of small fires Saturday along eastbound Interstate 70 have local fire officials investigating whether they were accidental or malicious

Around 6:30 p.m. Saturday, firefighters rolled to stomp out six to 10 fires between Wolcott and West Vail, and one in the Copper Mountain area.

The fires were small, but they were all along the eastbound lanes of I-70, some near the shoulder and some in the median, said Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller.

A fire in Wolcott spread to three acres, and firefighters from the Eagle River Fire Protection District stopped to knock down a smaller fire on their way to Wolcott.

The fires did little or no damage, but left local firefighters wondering whether or not they were accidental.

"Frankly that's what went through my mind and several other people's minds," Miller said. "This could be catastrophic, and around the state we're already in the middle of several things that are catastrophic."

Several motorists and other passersby stopped to help stomp out the fires, getting a jump on extinguishing them as police and firefighters were on their way.

"It was a challenging few hours," Miller said. "We don't know what caused these fires, but we're leaning toward that it was accidental and not malicious."

Gail McFarland, a fire inspector with the Eagle River Fire Protection District, said there's no reason to suspect the fires were malicious.

"We didn't find anything in the point of origin to lead us to believe it was anything but an accident," she said.

Still, 6- to- 10 fires along that stretch raises suspicions, Miller said.

"From mile marker 160 to 179 is almost 20 miles. If someone had a problem with their car you'd think they would have noticed it," Miller said.

Miller and the rest of the area's fire chiefs have all seen huge fires start from almost nothing, especially with conditions as they are now.

"I've seen fires caused by sparks from dragging tailpipes, safety chains, lawn mowers throw a rock and the next thing you know you have a 5,000-acre fire," Miller said.

"Many times people think someone else has already called 911. If you see something say something," Miller said. "Don't be bashful about calling 911. It is extraordinarily dry. It takes literally nothing to get a fire started."

Eagle County has joined most of Colorado in either banning or severely restricting open fires. Eagle County is part of the 11 percent of the state in "extreme drought," according to the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. Last March was the driest on record in Colorado and March through May was the warmest on record.

The dry conditions won't improve soon. Colorado's snowpack is 2 percent of average, says the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The Colorado River Basin, which includes Eagle County, has no measurable snow. Neither do the Gunnison, Arkansas, Upper Rio Grande, and combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins.

The only site in the state with snow remaining is in the Yampa river basin with 7 percent of average, NRCS data said.

The statewide snowpack hit its peak March 7, 35 days ahead of the average peak date. It melted out about a month early as well, said Phyllis Ann Philipps, state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"The mountains just did not receive the spring storms needed to boost this season's snowpack," Philipps said. "Our sites recorded below average precipitation in March, April and May throughout the state."

Stream flows are forecast to be their lowest since 2002.

Through the end of July, streams across the state will flow at around 30 percent of average, Philipps said.

There is some good news, though.

Colorado's reservoirs are still full. On June 1, statewide reservoir storage was at 98 percent of average and 61 percent of capacity, the NRCS said.

"This stored water should provide some reprieve from potential shortages this summer statewide but water users should be prepared for late season shortages," Philipps said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Jun 11, 2012 08:42PM Published Jun 11, 2012 08:40PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.