Big Fish Fire continues to grow |

Big Fish Fire continues to grow

Cliff Thompson

So far the Big Fish Fire is doing exactly what fire officials want it to do – burning up lots of wilderness choked with dead trees.

“We have structure protection in place, and it’s looking pretty good,” said Fire Information Officer Cal Wettstein. “They’ve had a couple of weeks to get ready with pumps and hose lines.”

As a precaution, people were evacuated from nearly 50 buildings in the fire’s path Thursday, when the wind-aided blaze blew up from 300 to 1,500 acres across the base of Himes Peak. Roads and trails in the area were also closed to the public.

Nearly 100 firefighters with 20 fire engines are protecting structures in the fire’s path, he said. None are fighting the wildfire.

Smoke has been visible along the Interstate 70 corridor from Vail to Glenwood Springs. That smoke is very dense because a spruce beetle epidemic in the 1940s and 1950s killed thousands of trees in the area, and the dead trees are feeding the fire. The accumulation of fuels ranges from 40 to 100 tons per acre and is four or five times denser than what is normally found in local forests, fire officials said.

The fire was sparked by lightning three weeks ago in the Flat Tops Wilderness near Big Fish Lake, three miles west of Trapper’s Lake in northeastern Garfield County. Forest Service crews are letting the fire burn – as planned – and it could burn as much as 6,000 acres before it is done, said Blanco District Ranger Bill Hahnenberg.

Naturally ignited fires in wilderness areas are often allowed to burn to allow nature to take its course, forest officials said. Much of the forest in the West is fire-dependant and actually requires fire to maintain its health.

“This fire is going to be a real benefit for the overall health of the Flat Tops,” said Wettstein. “It’s drastically reducing the fuel load of the area.”

That fuel load has accumulated because federal and other land management agencies have practiced a policy of fire suppression for nearly 100 years.

If the fire continues its present easterly course, it will run out of fuel when it encounters a series of cliffs as it burns out of a natural bowl.

“It’s like a Chinese wall,” said Wettstein. “It’s a very confined area the fire is burning. It’s not like it’s going to go for miles and miles.”

The Trapper’s Lake Lodge, which serves campgrounds in the area, has been wrapped with fire retardant foil and the area has been sprayed with water to slow the fire.

If the wind changes and pushes the fire north, it will be contained by 1,700 acres already burned at the Lost Lake Fire earlier in the summer. Weather forecast from the National Weather Service calls for continued westerly winds.

Monitoring the fire will be a unique 10-person “fire use management team,” one of only three in the country, said Wettstein. When the fire first started, he said, the team created models for the management implementation plan now being used, Wettstein said.

“They establish trigger points where they take action,” Wettstein said.

Fire officials expect the fire to pass nearby structures tonight or tomorrow and then work its way east, where it will slow when it runs out of fuel.

One of the advantages of these kinds of fire is we aren’t putting people in harms way nearly as much as on a full-suppression show,” said Wettstein.

Area forests are primed to burn after five years of below-normal precipitation and, this year, by the worst drought ever recorded.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or

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