Big Fish Fire slowing down |

Big Fish Fire slowing down

Cliff Thompson

Thunderstorms Monday pushed the blaze toward the Rio Blanco Ranch, where it ignited a crown fire. Pushed by winds within 60 feet of buildings, the fire bore flames 100 feet tall, fire officials said.

The buildings survived, but the fire continued to spread to the north, threatening to merge with 5,100-acre Lost Lake Fire about three miles away.

“Today there’s very little activity,” Fire Information Officer Ron Hodgson said Tuesday. “It’s not pushing any perimeters today. It’s a fairly quiet day so far.”

The Big Fish Fire, started by lightning in the Flat Tops Wilderness a month ago, was allowed to burn under controversial U.S. Forest Service policy. Friday’s destruction of the historic Trapper’s Lake Lodge, however, is sure to heat up the debate about how to manage forest health.

The lodge – built in 1919 near the site where one of the architects of American Wilderness areas, Arthur Carhart, received his inspiration – was one of eight building destroyed .

Firefighters protecting the lodge and other structures were forced to seek safety when strong winds pushed the blaze through the crowns of trees. That fire slowed down when winds abated, and structures wrapped in fire-retardant foil and dampened with fire hoses were spared.

“It’s slowly burning itself out of,” said Fire Information Officer Linda Torgerson. “We’re expecting 19,000 acres to burn.”

The blaze is largely contained in a basin, where it’s expected to run out of fuel, Forest Service officials said.

The agency’s policy on naturally ignited fires in wilderness areas uses the clumsy phrase “fire for beneficial use.” Many ecosystems in the West actually need fire to maintain their health, so public land managers often allow fires to burn.

Holy Cross District Ranger Cal Wettstein said the forest around Trapper’s Lake and Big Fish Lake, for example, had been choked with up to 100 tons of fuelwood per acre – five times what’s normal in Eagle County forests – after a spruce beetle infestation in the 1940s and “50s.

“In general, it’s a healthy fire and it’s doing what it’s supposed to do,” added Torgerson.

The Big Fish fire is one of four fires burning within 45 miles of Steamboat Springs. It is likely the fires won’t be completely extinguished until winter snows arrive.

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

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