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Lightning sparks alarm

Matt Zalaznick

Spotter planes flew through the valley’s smoky skies Thursday checking for any other fires that might have been caused by Wednesday night’s lightning storm.

“The rain was very spotty and sparse,” said Cal Wettstein, district ranger at the U.S. Forest Service Holy Cross Ranger Station. “It doesn’t help to have a storm come through and not give us a lot of rain with the lightning.”

Fire crews attacked the Shrine Pass blaze, which burned about a tenth of an acre before it was contained, at around 6 a.m. Smoke lingering in the valley, however, had firefighters on the lookout for other blazes throughout the day.



A quick response is critical in squelching a wildfire before it spreads out of control, Wettstein said.

“They jumped on this fire,” he said.



Much of the smoke and haze that begrimed the valley’s skies Thursday came from the massive, 54,400-acre Missionary Ridge Fire burning to the southwest near Durango, officials said. Fires from as far away as Arizona are also contributing haze and smoke to the valley’s skies.

Drivers Thursday described grimy skies from the Vail all the way along U.S. Highway to Leadville, where the smoke got even thicker. And fire crews continued to patrol the valley watching for plumes of smoke Thursday afternoon, making the loop from Vail to Minturn to Red Cliff to Shrine Pass.

Firefighters in spotter planes did not see any other fires in their passes over the valley Thursday afternoon.



Dry, lightning-charged thunderstorms will continue to barrel over the valley today and Saturday, said Dave Nadler, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

“We’re primarily looking at lighting and gusty winds – and that’s unfortunate,” Nadler said. “The rain’s evaporating before it hits the ground. If you’re lucky, you might get a few sprinkles, but that’s what we’re looking at for the next couple of days.”

While longer-term forecasts don’t show heavy rain, forecasters say they are holding for wetter weather later in the summer.

“We’re hoping to see more monsoonal weather at the end of July,” Nadler said.

Colorado is suffering from its worst drought in a century after four years of low snow and rainfall. That has left forests and other wildlands tinder-dry and ripe for blazes like the raging Hayman Fire southwest of Denver and the destructive Coal Seam Fire in Glenwood Springs.

“Under these extreme conditions, we bring more people on,” Wettstein said. “We have engines ready to go at our compound in Minturn. We have an engine from Nebraska standing by in Eagle.

“All the federal fire agencies have a conference call every morning to review what resources are available, such as helicopters and air tankers,” he added.

Fire officials are urging valley residents to keep a sharp eye out for smoke and flames. Firefighters have been flooded with fire calls from alarmed residents, however, who are unsure if they are seeing or smelling smoke, Eagle River Fire Chief Charlie Moore said.

Because smoke may be blowing from faraway fires, Moore is asking residents to use their best judgment if they think they see or smell smoke.

“We really need our residents to be our eyes out there. With all of the recent events, we are asking people to spend a minute and really look hard for what might be the source of concern,” Moore said. “If they take some time and still feel that there is a problem, by all means call it in.”

Wettstein said greater danger may come after the string of thunderstorms blows over.

While the storms are rumbling through, higher humidity will slow the spread of fires. A return to high winds and dry weather after the storms, however, could spell trouble if firefighters have missed some smoldering lightning strikes, he said.

“We’ll watch for numerous ignitions and take steps to jump on them fast,” Wettstein said. “If there are any holdover strikes we haven’t detected, that can be a problem very fast. It makes us very nervous.”

Matt Zalaznick covers public safety, Eagle County Courts and Avon/ Beaver Creek. He can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.


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