Fire strikes, residents flee near Eagle County
Midvalley residents weary from a long winter were shocked Tuesday when a wind-whipped wild fire threatened scores of homes, forced the evacuation of hundreds of people and closed down Highway 82 for several hours.
Two houses caught fire but were extinguished before they were heavily damaged, according to Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach. A press release issued last night by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office said a total of four structures ignited but were saved. A public information officer said he didn’t know if the other two structures were houses or sheds.
One man fishing near the Ranch at Roaring Fork subdivision was overcome by the fast-moving flames and received burns to the back of his head and an arm, according to a man who was with him (see related story). The injured man was in stable condition at Valley View Hospital last night, according to his colleague.
The fire charred about 300 acres of private land as of 9 p.m. Tuesday and officials considered it 25 percent contained.
Leach said wind gusts of up to 50 mph made fighting the fire extremely difficult throughout the afternoon and into the night.
The fire blew out of control shortly after noon about 1.2 miles east of Carbondale on County Road 100, also known as Catherine Store Road, Leach said. The fire threatened 10 homes in and around the Roaring Fork Preserve and Mayfly Bend subdivisions, an area sandwiched between County Road 100 and the Roaring Fork River.
The first firefighters on the scene “found a rapidly spreading wildfire” and scrambled to protect homes, Leach said. They immediately called for aid from Basalt Fire Department.
While firefighters were protecting homes and battling flames along Country Road 100, the fire jumped the Roaring Fork River and worked northeast toward the Ranch at Roaring Fork subdivision.
“That subdivision was absolutely threatened in a big way,” said Leach.
An Aspen Times reporter and photographer were on Surrey Drive in the subdivision at about 1:15 p.m. when flames burst out of the dense smoke. Brush crackled in the flames, ash floated down like fluffy snowflakes and the wind made an eerie whining noise. The flames approached homes on the west end of the road and created pandemonium in the neighborhood.
A resident of the Hahn home, closest to the fire, emerged from the house wearing a gas mask and immediately started hosing down the house with a garden hose. Other residents ran from house to house, knocked on doors and yelled for their neighbors to pack up and leave. One woman cursed repeatedly in disbelief while she vacillated between leaving the area or sprinkling her house with a garden hose. One man emerged from his house with a baby in his arms and hightailed it from the area in his vehicle.
Residents at the Ranch at Roaring Fork and nearby Aspen Equestrian Estates were told by authorities to evacuate. Residents within a 3-mile radius of Catherine Store received telephone calls via reverse-911 and were ordered out, according to the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. Authorities anticipated lifting the evacuation last night.
Evacuation shelters were established at the Roaring Fork High School and El Jebel Community Center.
Rhonda Black, owner of Catherine Store and a house in Aspen Equestrian Estates, was packing up business records at the store at mid-afternoon and preparing to evacuate as thick smoke shrouded the area and flames occasionally flared up nearby.
In addition to worrying about her house and business, Black said she also was concerned about a warehouse across County Road 100 from where the fire started. A $3 million inventory of wine is stored there, she said. Black said she had only a few minutes to grab possessions from her house before she had to leave the area and help attend to the store.
The raging wind carried embers across Highway 82 at about 2:40 p.m. and set the hillside at the base of Missouri Heights ablaze. The fire was concentrated in late afternoon around the first big switchback while climbing County Road 100 into Missouri Heights, around the old Carbondale dump, which has been closed for years.
Several trailers filled with horses traveled down from Missouri Heights in case the fire spread.
Leach said numerous crews were stationed in Missouri Heights last night to limit the spread of the flames. Firefighters from Aspen to Glenwood Springs assisted the crews from Basalt and Carbondale. Crews also arrived throughout the day from places as far as Clifton and Paonia. Federal firefighters from the Upper Colorado Interagency Fire Management team also rendered aid even though public lands weren’t involved.
Highway 82 was closed and traffic was diverted onto Missouri Heights for three hours Tuesday. Frustrated commuters without knowledge of the problem were seeking alternative routes through places like Sopris Village subdivision in the El Jebel area. They ultimately got stuck in traffic jams. One lane in each direction of Highway 82 reopened at about 7 p.m.
Leach said the cause of the fire remained under investigation. Numerous rumors circulated about illegal burning ” either of dead grass in a ditch or of trash ” by a landowner along County Road 100.
Leach said the ability of the fire to move so rapidly shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, despite the wet conditions that persisted until recently. Conditions of “light fuels” such as grasses are “extremely dry,” he said.
Bill Kight of the U.S. Forest Service, who was working as a public information officer, said the high winds helped create dry conditions and offset the wet winter.
“This is really early but nothing surprises me any more. It’s Mother Nature,” Kight said.
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