Ptarmigan Fire approaches 100 acres with more evacuations ordered
Credentialed evacuees will be allowed to return home from 8-10 a.m. Wednesday
It was another somber day in Summit County on Tuesday, Sept. 28, as community members watched the Ptarmigan Fire northeast of Silverthorne continued to cast a black plume of smoke over the area.
Those evacuated from their homes gathered at Silverthorne Town Hall to get credentials in hopes that they’d be given an opportunity to return, even for a few minutes, to collected their most cherished and important items. Residents prayed for the heavens to open up and bring a downpour over the blaze. And firefighters and aircraft from around the state arrived in force to protect hundreds of homes below the looming force of nature.
“It’s frightening,” said Calvin Stewart, a Hamilton Creek resident who was evacuated Monday night. “… Of course your first thought — being in denial — is, ‘We’re going to be just fine.’ But the reality is we may not. So it’s just a waiting game. And at this point, I’m just numb to it all. … I had to have some sort of acceptance. We can’t control it.”
The Ptarmigan Fire ignited on U.S. Forest Service land northeast of Silverthorne on Monday afternoon, spurring the evacuation of nearly 300 homes in the Hamilton Creek neighborhood. Another evacuation order was issued Tuesday for the upper Angler Mountain Ranch neighborhood. A pre-evacuation notice is currently in place for residents in the Angler Mountain neighborhood on Bald Eagle Road, Fly Line Drive and below, along with residents east and uphill of Summit County Road 2020 and north of Summit County Road 2021.
Summit Fire & EMS spokesperson Steve Lipsher said the cause of the fire is still under investigation. As of 9 p.m. Tuesday, no homes had been burned.
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Adam Bianchi, district ranger with the Dillon Ranger District, said despite higher humidity and colder temperatures, the fire grew from about 17 acres Monday night to an estimated 60 acres Tuesday morning. It continued to grow to between 85 and 100 acres throughout the day Tuesday, according to the latest estimates. Bianchi said the growth was primarily toward the north and east, away from residential areas.
“We really focused our efforts on the western flank and the south heel of the fire,” Bianchi said. “We really were concentrating to make sure that the fire was not moving down into the subdivision. You can see there that we were successful. The fire did not grow there. It actually grew more to the east and to the north, so we were pretty happy with those efforts (Tuesday).”
Similar to Monday, firefighting efforts were conducted primarily via aircraft, including four helicopters and a large air tanker. For now, conditions are considered too dangerous for ground crews.
“The conditions are challenging, and right now it’s not so much a fire condition as it is a snag condition,” Incident Commander Eric White said. “So we really need to approach where the fire is at in the timber very methodically and clear the snags as we go so we don’t get firefighter injuries or worse out there. … Where the fire is right now makes it extremely challenging to get in and address due to those snags.”
Snags are unstable trees that could potentially fall over with little-to-no warning and injure firefighters. White said getting ground crews up to the fire line would likely be necessary in order to start building containment.
“Right now, we’re not showing any containment on the fire,” White said. “… The rain has helped the fire an awful lot, but until we can actually get people up safely on the ground to go and actually secure that edge by putting hands and tools (in the ground) and declaring it out, we’re really not going to start to show that containment.”
There are currently about 100 firefighters assigned to the wildfire to monitor its behavior overnight, step in to protect homes if necessary and to begin building containment lines when the time is right.
Mother Nature did provide some relief, with rain coming down over the area starting at about 1 p.m., though the weather also grounded all of the aircraft dropping slurry and water over the blaze. Bianchi said the plan is to “hit it hard” with aircraft again Wednesday morning before more rain moves into the area in the afternoon.
While evacuated residents didn’t get a chance to return home at any point Tuesday, Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said evacuees would have a window from 8-10 a.m. Wednesday to enter the area and collect belongings. Residents are required to pick up credentials from Silverthorne Town Hall before heading to the evacuation area. Town Hall will open at 7 a.m. to begin issuing credentials for anyone who hasn’t already picked one up. Residents must provide identification that shows they live in the evacuated area in order to receive credentials.
“The fire activity is obviously really low in the morning, so we’re not concerned about wildfire behavior up there while you’re in there,” FitzSimons said during an update at Silverthorne Town Hall on Tuesday night. “Also, it gives us that short window before the aircraft start again. … You saw the airshow today, I’m sure. It will be there again tomorrow. … We want you in and out before that happens.”
Officials are encouraging community members who haven’t already to sign up for the Summit County Alert system at SummitCountyCo.gov/scalert and to frequently check news outlets and local social media channels for up-to-date information. Residents can also call a public information hotline at 970-668-9700 with questions, and another briefing will be held at Silverthorne Town Hall at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Officials are also urging community members to be respectful of firefighting operations by keeping out of the area whenever possible and keeping drones grounded.
“If (the Forest Service) has aircraft in the air and a drone flies up in the air, they’ve got to immediately ground all those aircraft,” FitzSimons said. “So if we ground all the aircraft, we’re not able to fight the fire because it is not safe at this point to put ground crews in the area. … I do have federal law enforcement partners … that will find these people flying drones, and they will go after them.”
The National Weather Service forecast calls for scattered showers throughout Wednesday and over the following days.
While there’s mostly good news for now, evacuees spending another night away from home are still left with a sense of uncertainty.
“Obviously, you don’t know what’s going to happen when it’s a couple miles from your house and you can’t watch it,” Hamilton Creek resident Eric Bienemann said. “It’s definitely a bit unsettling. There’s nothing we can do at this point (except) … just wait it out and let the experts take care of business and hope the winds keep shifting in favorable directions.”
Some have been through similar experiences before. Susan Rubin-Stewart, wife of Calvin Stewart, said the couple lost their home in the Bahamas during Hurricane Dorian in 2019, and they’re still working to rebuild.
“People don’t realize the aftermath of rebuilding your house and stuff like that,” Rubin-Stewart said. “That takes a really long time, especially when there’s multiple houses. But I have total confidence in the firefighters. … Those guys are experts. I don’t think it will get to most of the houses at all. They just know their business so well, and they’re so well organized.”