Rogue drone halts Middle Mamm firefighting

Thomas Phippen, Glenwood Springs Post Independent
A tandem rotor helicopter drops water on a hot spot on the north edge of the Middle Mamm fire south of Rifle Saturday. Kyle Mills / Post Independent

A drone flying near the Middle Mamm Creek Fire forced crews to ground firefighting aircraft Tuesday afternoon when conditions were calm and ideal for firefighting.

Crews are working to fight the 960-acre fire as much as possible before forecasted storms with winds move over the western slope Wednesday.

“It’s frustrating for us. Our crews had to be out of the air when the air was still,” said Lynn Lockwood, a U.S. Forest Service public information officer working the fire.

The aircraft were grounded for around 30 minutes, Lockwood said.

Local law enforcement agencies had some leads on who was flying the drone, and there could be repercussions, Lockwood said.

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“A lot of firefighting aircraft fly under 150 feet, which is optimal drone flying altitude, so midair collisions become an issue when (drones) incur on wildfire boundaries,” said Dylan Peters, public information officer for the Middle Mamm Creek fire.

The Bureau of Land Management announced more area closures where they anticipate the fire could grow during strong weather later this week, and Garfield County Sheriff’s Office issued a pre-evacuation notice Tuesday evening.

Traffic on County roads 319 and CR 322 is currently limited to residents in the area, but if the fire worsens it could be closed to all but first responders.

There could also be a closure of at the intersection of CR 315 and CR 316. Residents to the south and southwest of those points “are under a pre-evacuation order and encouraged to be on high alert,” the Sheriff’s Office said.

The closed area of BLM land is between CR 315 and CR 319, northeast of the fire.

“That’s where we expect the fire to grow, if it grows,” BLM spokesman David Boyd said.

The Middle Mamm Creek fire started from a July 28 lightning strike in a remote area of BLM land 10 miles south of Rifle. Initially, the land management agencies let it burn for forest health and fuel reduction.

The fire grew slowly until it was around 320 acres Friday morning. In a single day, strong winds pushed the fire to over 900 acres. The agencies then called in firefighters to suppress the blaze.

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