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Grizzly Creek Fire reaches 25,000 acres, becomes largest in White River history

Forest supervisor says conditions have changed in forest: ‘This isn’t going away’

By Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

Over the weekend, the Grizzly Creek Fire became the largest in the history of the White River National Forest as far as acres burned.

As of Sunday morning, the fire had burned 20,665 acres of national forest out of a total burn area of 25,690 acres in just six days, according to U.S. Forest Service data. The additional acres are on Bureau of Land Management grounds or private property.

The next largest conflagration was the Big Fish Fire in the Flattops north of Glenwood Springs in 2002. It burned 16,912 acres of national forest and totaled 17,056.

The Lake Christine Fire, which threatened Basalt, El Jebel and part of Missouri Heights in July 2018, burned 8,506 acres of national forest and a total of 12,588 acres. It ranks as the fifth-largest fire in the White River’s history.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the Grizzly Creek Fire erupted so significantly because of hot, dry and windy conditions and because firefighting in the early stages was so difficult in the steep, inaccessible terrain.

“Once it left the median of the highway, it was off to the races,” Fitzwilliams said Sunday. “There was no way to fight it.”

The fire started in the median of Interstate 70 on Monday afternoon, climbed the steep slopes to the north and later in the week jumped the Colorado River and made a run in the terrain to the south. 

It’s ripped through terrain that was inaccessible to firefighters. Air tankers and helicopters dropped numerous loads of retardant and water but that only slowed the growth. The fire is now approaching fire lines on both sides of the river, but there is still potential for extensive growth in acreage, according to Fitzwilliams.

“The north fire front is 10 miles wide now,” he noted.

The Forest Service data shows that seven of the top 10 largest fires in the White River area have occurred since 2002. Fitzwilliams said that is more than a coincidence.

“It’s warmer and drier due to the changing climate,” he said. “I’m not an expert on that, but the data is there.”

The White River National Forest, which covers 2.3 million acres, historically has avoided larger wildfires because of its high elevation and ample precipitation.

“Internally (at the Forest Service), the White River National Forest was known as the ‘asbestos forest,’” Fitzwilliams said. That was a testament to the low number and small nature of its fires.

Those days might be behind it. Much of the 2.3 million-acre forest is experiencing severe or moderate drought this year, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. It’s the second drought in three years. Extremely dry conditions in 2002 also produced several large fires in Colorado and the western United States.

“What’s significant is this area of Colorado for a length of time hasn’t seen big fires,” Fitzwilliams said. “We’ve talked a lot as a team about how people are starting to see things change here, on the White River team. It’s important for our communities to understand that this is something we’re going to have to prepare for on a more frequent basis than what we’ve been accustomed to.”

The snowpack was slightly above average last winter. However, the fall was much warmer and drier than average, so ground moisture levels were low heading into winter. A hot, windy spring consumed the snowpack and the summer monsoons never materialized. That’s created conditions in the forest that are ripe for wildfire.

Assuming the trend continues for more frequent and more intense fires, the firefighting effort will also become more challenging because of Colorado’s growth explosion. Many of the most coveted places for development are in what’s technically known as the wildland-urban interface. In practical terms, it’s a house in or at the edge of the woods.

“We’re going to deal with the consequences of that,” Fitzwilliams said.

So what’s it mean for public land managers? Fitzwilliams said the White River staff has to plan more fuel reduction projects, such as prescribed burns. Several hundred acres of a prescribed burn prior to the Lake Christine Fire clearly slowed the spread of the fire into heavily populated Missouri Heights, Fitzwilliams said.

He is eager to see what effect a prescribed burn in the French Creek area of the Flattops has on the Grizzly Creek Fire.

The White River also has worked on logging projects to reduce fuel loads. That doesn’t always go over well with neighbors. One active lawsuit is challenging a logging project in the Upper Fryingpan River Valley.

Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service must make a better case for the projects — effectively telling the public why it feels it needs to pursue the work.

But prescribed burns and logging aren’t going to occur in the wildland-urban interface. Fire would be too great of a threat to homes. Logging would be logistically difficult. So, towns and individual homeowners have to get better at creating defensible space around structures.

“As communities and homeowners, we’re woefully behind,” Fitzwilliams said.

For forest visitors, an increase in fires could bring more frequent closures of trails and sections of forest for recreation and more frequent restrictions of campfires.

“This is not going away,” Fitzwilliams said. “It’s part of living in this great (landscape).”

scondon@aspentimes.com


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