Eagle County wildfires could have knocked out electricity to thousands

A helicopter flies a bucket of water over the Lake Christine Fire on July 4. That fire threatened electric power to Basalt and Aspen. If all of the lines fell, power would have been lost for days.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

What you need

Weather, fire or other disasters could knock out power or other utilities for a day or more. If that happens, here’s a short list of what you need to have on hand:

• Potable water for three days or more (figure two gallons per person).

• Nonperishable food for at least three days.

• Warm blankets or sleeping bags.

• Battery-powered lights and a radio, along with fresh batteries.

EAGLE COUNTY — The Red Canyon II fire just northeast of Wolcott gave a glimpse into just how vulnerable the valley is to natural disaster.

That fire, which sparked the evening of Sunday, July 8, consumed a relatively small area — fewer than 30 acres. But the Red Canyon Estates subdivision was evacuated for a time. The fire also threatened the main power lines that serve Edwards, Avon and Vail.

County officials the evening of July 8 sent out an Eagle County Alert warning residents to be prepared for a “prolonged” power outage to the eastern portion of the valley.

In response, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District declared a water supply emergency, which bans all outdoor watering.

In the case of the alert, “prolonged” has a more dire meaning than just a matter of hours. Officials were concerned that losing that line to fire could possibly knock out electric service for as much several days.

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In the case of the water district, that would have taxed the capabilities of a large, complex system that delivers water from East Vail to Edwards on the valley floor, as well as areas including Bachelor Gulch and Cordillera.

‘Prolonged’ means days

District communications and public affairs manager Diane Johnson said the district could probably operate normally for as long as a couple of days without electricity. There are generators to pump water into some of the district’s 50 storage tanks. From there, gravity would take care of getting water into homes.

But, Johnson said, the warning of a possible outage measured in days prompted district officials to act fast.

The order went out to pump more water into storage tanks, particularly those on the upper end of relay systems that pump from tank to tank to tank. There were people on duty that night to carry out that order.

The district also put out the notice of the water supply emergency as quickly as possible — in this case, after 10 p.m. on a Sunday. In case power was knocked out to cellphone towers and Wi-Fi routers, the news needed to go out while the lights were still on.

Putting as much water as possible into the tanks is basically at the top of the to-do list in any event that threatens water supplies. Those threats range from hazardous material spills into streams to loss of electric power to the pumping equipment.

Johnson said in the case of hazardous material spills, stream intakes — the primary water supplies for the district — are closed immediately and stay closed until the threat has passed. In that case, the district uses its wells and water from the tanks to supply the system.

But those tanks aren’t just for drinking water. In fact, Johnson said, the big storage tanks “aren’t for daily use.” Instead, that water is reserved in large part for firefighting.

“It’s putting out fires that determines tank size,” Johnson said.

If the intakes are shut down, then the water in the tanks and water in the mains is what’s available. Johnson said that’s probably enough to take care of essentials. Outdoor water isn’t essential.

More ‘resiliency’ needed

Holy Cross Energy CEO Bryan Hannegan said the Red Canyon II fire and the Lake Christine fire near Basalt have prompted that organization to start thinking about adding “resiliency” to the utility’s delivery systems.

In the case of the Lake Christine fire, Hannegan said there are four main lines that go into Basalt and Aspen. Three failed. If the fourth had failed, then power would have been down for as long as several days.

In the case of the Red Canyon II fire — so named because of a previous Red Canyon fire in another state — that blaze threatened the two main lines into the upper Eagle River Valley.

As was the case in the Roaring Fork Valley, one line standing is sufficient to power the area. If both had gone down, then the outage would have lasted for days.

Hannegan said repair crews can’t go into an area until a fire is contained. That’s why full failures in those cases would take so long to repair.

With attention focused on those narrowly averted disasters, Hannegan said Holy Cross officials are talking about new options ranging from generating power closer to service areas to providing secondary lines to those areas.

In the case of the Eagle River Valley, Holy Cross is talking about running a transmission line from Gilman into Avon. If that line was in place now, then the Red Canyon II fire, while potentially serious, wouldn’t have been nearly as worrisome.

At this point, Hannegan said it’s “prudent” to use the attention from the Lake Christine and Red Canyon II fires to focus attention on surviving the next disaster, whatever it is.

And, given how dependent on electricity communications systems from cellphones to police radios are, that work needs to be done as quickly as possible.

But power outages are possible. In that case, it’s prudent for residents to be ready to ride out a disaster.

“It’s never a bad time for a go bag or power outage kit,” Hannegan said.

Eagle County Emergency Management Director Barry Smith said it’s wise to act now to pull together emergency kits.

Waiting until the next emergency alert is too late, he said.

Smith said people need to store enough water, nonperishable food and ways to keep warm for at least three days.

For water, count on using at least two gallons per person per day, Smith said. And people need to be ready to either eat cold food or use outdoor grills. Camp stoves are dangerous inside. Filling bathtubs can be handy for toilet flushing and other non-drinking use.

Smith also advised having battery-powered lights and radios handy.

And, while Lake Christine and Red Canyon II got plenty of attention, those incidents are far from the only ones that have at least temporarily threatened the way we live today.

“We’ve had more near misses than I’d like to mention,” Smith said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at and 970-748-2930.

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