Glenwood blaze shows what’s possible
“Just be careful with any ignition source, anything that can light something on fire – gasoline cook stoves, converters on a car or a cigarette. It is so dry, a wildfire is off and going before you know it,” says Holy Cross District Ranger Cal Wettstein, who has been watching the Coal Seam Fire in Glenwood Spring unfold since Saturday afternoon.
Wettstein, who is helping with community communication in Glenwood, describes the fire as “fast moving” and “spotting here and there real quick.”
“When it gets into heavier fuels it is really hard to get a handle on,” he says, adding that the low humidity at under 5 percent and winds gusting at 40 miles per hour are challenging the 300 to 400 firefighters on the blaze.
Air attack on the 8,000-acre blaze at the western edge of Glenwood Springs has been grounded because of the winds and the steep terrain, blamed in part for the deaths of 14 firefighters in the 1994 Storm King Mountain Fire in approximately the same location, are making it a “real tough one to get under control,” Wettstein says.
As of 7 p.m. Sunday, the fire, which has burned about 40 structures – though not the Glenwood Springs mall as rumored – had spread at a steady clip and showed no signs of letting up. Wettstein confirms that the fire is “zero contained.”
“It is in the town of Glenwood Springs, burning through the western edge of the town and above it,” he says. “It’s on both sides of the river and the freeway.”
I-70, which was closed at around 5 p.m. Saturday between Rifle and Wolcott, reopened in both directions at 3:15 p.m. Sunday, according to the Colorado State Patrol.
While parts of the fire are charting a path away from town northeast toward the Flat Tops Wilderness, Wettstein says a portion of the fire continues to head southwest – directly toward the core of the city of 7,700 residents.
With as many as 2,000 evacuated, Wettstein says the strategy is to protect whatever is in the fire’s path – if it is physically accessible.
Backfires – fires intentionally set to deny the fire of fuel – “have been pretty successful last night,” Wettstein says.
But the outlook is grim, with the weather forecast predicting more of the same.
“If the winds keep up blowing towards town, this will remain a very challenging fire to fight,” Wettstein says, adding that he does not want to make any predictions as to where the fire is going and when it will be contained.
A fire management team sent by the National Interagency Fire Center began arriving in Glenwood Sunday morning to oversee the response to the raging fire, fought by as many as 400 firefighters so far.
“Once they assess the situation, we should have a better idea of what will happen next,” Wettstein says.
So far the fire has not resulted in any injuries or deaths.
In Eagle County, wildfires kept firefighters busy for the first half of the weekend. Then some firefighters headed to Glenwood to help out.
As many as a 18 local firefighters are in Glenwood Springs along with tanker and pumper trucks belonging to local fire districts and fire departments.
“We don’t plan on anymore unless it is requested,” says Fire Chief Charlie Moore of the Eagle River Fire Protection District, which battled its own blaze this weekend, helped out on a second and then sent back-up to Glenwood.
“We have six firefighters down there and we’ll switch them out every 48 hours,” Moore says, adding that his entire department of 92 firefighters is on heightened alert with pagers given even to part-time, paid volunteers because of the persisting dry conditions and fears of wildfires in Eagle County.
“We keep track of our human resources really closely. If someone has to leave, we have them check in,” he says.
Moore’s crew fought a 6-acre burn at MountainStar, a tony subdivision above Avon for 13 hours. The fire, which started Friday afternoon, is under investigation by the Avon Police Department. According to Moore, arson is suspected.
A second blaze, started by lightning at the Eagle County Landfill, claimed 40 acres of brush Saturday afternoon before it was brought under control largely by air tankers dropping fire redardant.
While the toll on human life has been zero, Wettstein says, the toll on human emotions has been great in Glenwood Springs.
“You see it on these people’s faces. They cry, they are dazed. It’s the hole gamut of what comes with wildfires,” he says.
While Eagle County escaped the worst this weekend, fire officials say the conditions here are no different than Garfield County – and only human behavior can prevent the unnecessary beyond the inevitable.
“You have got to be careful with any kind of fire close to any kind of wild area,” says Moore. “If you are firing up a grill with 20 feet of bluegrass around it, you are probably OK. But out in the wild you have got to use your maximum caution with anything flammable.”
Eagle County is under a “Stage 2” fire ban, according to Wettstein, meaning only fires in improved campgrounds are allowed on public lands.
“If this continues and the conditions stay the same, I think we are likely to move to the next stage and a complete fire ban,” he says.
“We are going to have enough on our hands with naturally ignited fires from lightning. We don’t need any man-made fires.”
Moore says he is “extremely nervous” looking ahead, while Wettstein says he will stay away from any open flame whenever possible.
“I got home last night and we broiled salmon in the stove,” he says. “We would normally throw it on the grill, but I couldn’t do that.”