‘A pretty intense firefight’: Assessing the battle for Glenwood Canyon
Firefighters in Glenwood Canyon said Thursday that the weather in recent days has added to the complexity of taming a wildfire that has already burned more than 29,000 acres.
“The weather has been moody, to say the least,” said Joe Kempel, an engine operator with a firefighting outfit from Cascade, Montana, that is under contract to the federal government.
Kempel and his crew have an engine that holds more than 1,100 gallons of water. They were helping protect cabins and other structures at the historic Bair Ranch on the eastern end of the canyon. They were stationed about 1 mile south of Interstate 70 and a few hundred feet above it.
Thunderstorms on Wednesday afternoon and evening brought in erratic, downdraft winds that kept firefighters answering the threat of flames moving from different directions on the steep slopes packed with pinion, juniper and oak brush so thick it’s difficult to walk through.
“It was a wild day for us trying to make a stand and save the cabins,” Kempel said.
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Thursday brought more of the same with a storm bringing lightning, thunder and a rain shower between 12:30 and 1 p.m.
Despite the challenges, the firefighters have saved the nine structures clustered on one section of Bair Ranch and more structures elsewhere.
On Thursday, agricultural sprinklers wetted down the yard around cabins, hoses from engines such as Kempel’s were in place for emergency use and additional water was stored in mobile tanks called pumpkins.
A key to saving structures on Bair Ranch was emergency work by a bulldozer Sunday evening clearing a firebreak between the toe of a steep slope and the flat ground around the cabins, according to Wayne Patterson, a public information officer for the Incident Command Team.
“That was a pretty intense firefight,” he said.
The fire burned right to the firebreak in spots. Crews doused hotspots when embers jumped the line, Kempel said.
Despite the challenges posed by cliff bands, inaccessible terrain and erratic winds, the 849 personnel on the Grizzly Creek Fire are gaining the upper hand, Patterson said.
Containment was listed at only 4% on Thursday, but that doesn’t reflect the progress being made with securing fire lines produced by heavy machinery and hand crews.
“We’re going to see the containment jumping in the next four or five days,” Patterson said.
The process is like building a box around the perimeter and keeping the fire contained inside, he said.
North of Interstate 70 toward Coffee Pot Road in the Flattops, the fire crews were able to erect a side of the box “that will help us contain this fire when it comes racing up out of these drainages,” Patterson said.
In places, existing U.S. Forest Service routes and ranch roads are being used to create the box. In other places, bulldozers scrape the earth raw to inhibit the spread of flames. Crews are undertaking that work both north and south of I-70 and the Colorado River.
“We’re trying to connect the dots all around the fire,” Patterson said. “There are two areas that aren’t quite connected.”
One is on the northeast edge of Glenwood Springs; the other is on the northeastern side of Lookout Mountain.
In the considerable amount of terrain that is inaccessible for heavy machinery, hotshot crews hoofed it in to create lines, such as in No Name Creek, where it was critical to prevent the fire from climbing the western ridge and marching toward Glenwood Springs.
“When I first came here, the team was thinking there was no way they were going to hold it there,” Patterson said. “They didn’t think they’d be able to prevent the fire from hooking around and coming in back door to Glenwood Springs.”
Another hotshot crew went up the drainage across the interstate from Bair Ranch and physically created a containment line that helped impede the fire’s march toward Dotsero.
Patterson pointed out that while the winds have been erratic and kept crews on their toes at times, they have also been beneficial at other times and blown the fire back on itself.
“They come right up against the black and put in fire line,” he said.
The effort to secure the fire line around Lookout Mountain will require altering a popular hiking and mountain biking route called the Boy Scout Trail.
“We have gotten line over to Lookout Mountain, now we’re working on completing that line and having those dozers working from there down to Lookout Park,” Patterson said. “Then the next step is, there is a trail that the community has that is used really heavily all the way down to 8th Street in Glenwood Springs. They refer to that as the Boy Scout Trail. They’re in there today starting to open that up just a little bit. They’re trying to be light-handed because it’s such a popular spot for hiking and that sort of thing.”
A bowl to the east of Lookout Mountain is full of oak brush and remains “a major concern on this fire,” Patterson said.
In a media tour led by Patterson on Thursday, the only signs of active fire along I-70 were small plumes of smoke from an occasional hotspot.
The fire thoroughly charred a roughly 3-mile stretch west and east of Grizzly Creek on the north side of the interstate. Further to the east, there is a mosaic of burned and untouched vegetation among the soaring rock cliffs on both sides of the river. Vast stretches along the 18-mile corridor were untouched by the fire.
At Hanging Lake parking lot and trailhead, the fire burned down to the valley floor in places. The fire left a checkerboard pattern in the vegetation scattered throughout the rock walls. One spot is completely burned out; a few feet away the heat scorched the leaves of the brush and conifer trees; another few feet away the vegetation looks normal.
“The canyon will be different but it will still be an icon for people in Glenwood Springs and for visitors,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest supervisor.
The fire ran up the drainages but skipped a lot of the terrain in the valley floor, he noted. “The more severe fire is on top of there,” Fitzwilliams said.
Patterson said it is a relief that such beautiful terrain survived as well as it did.
“I think anybody coming from the Glenwood Springs side, as soon as they come around the corner and see that first face that’s just burned so intensely, I think their hearts are going to drop,” Patterson said. “But as they get further in, you start seeing that mosaic pattern.”
At a community meeting in Glenwood Springs Thursday evening, Michael Goolsby, regional transportation director for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said the destruction will be rough on some observers.
“If you’re traveling on the eastbound portion of the interstate right now, which we have had to have traffic running because of the construction project, you’re not gonna think that it really is that impactful other than if you look up on the slopes,” he said. “If you’re up on the westbound portion of it, it’s apocalyptic. There’s areas up there that it’s destroyed. It’s terrible and it pains me to see it.”
He later added, “I can tell you that it definitely brings an emotional response when they see it. I had somebody specifically tell me they went through it and cried when they saw it, so there’s some areas up there that are pretty bad.”