Summit County blaze begins wildfire season |

Summit County blaze begins wildfire season

Janice Kurbjun
summit daily news
Summit Daily / Mark FoxSmoke billows up through the trees along Montezuma Road after embers jumped the road from an earlier fire, which was believed to have been started when a tree blew onto a powerline Monday.

A small wildland fire ignited by a downed powerline closed Montezuma Road at around 2:30 p.m. Monday, the blaze later grew to a five-acre frenzy.

The original fire seemed contained as of roughly 4:30, but crews detected embers flaring on the southwest-facing hillside along Montezuma Road around 5.

“We’re going to need all hands on deck. This thing is about triple the size,” the command radio blared.

The blaze spread due to high winds, which had been gusting up to 40 mph. The fire initially covered approximately half an acre along the roadside.

“They are playing this game with the whirling and swirling of the wind,” said Mark Watson, special operations technician with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.

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Firefighters were posted upwind to locate any other spot ignitions.

“It’s a spot fire on the south side of Montezuma Road that’s burning pretty good, and they’re going after that right now,” Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue spokesman Steve Lipsher said at roughly 5 p.m. “The party’s not over yet.”

Officials evacuated two homes in the area – those just over the nearest ridge – after the fire jumped the road onto the hillside. Other residents waited at the Summit County Sheriff’s Office barricade downvalley, with some wanting permission to retrieve pets from the area. For safety reasons, officials were recommending they not go into the valley, Lipsher said.

As of late afternoon, 22 firefighters and roughly 30 local personnel were on scene from Lake Dillon-Fire Rescue, Copper Mountain, Red, White and Blue Fire District and the U.S. Forest Service. Representatives from the High Country Training Center, Summit County Ambulance, Keystone Emergency Services and the sheriff’s office also responded. Roughly 3,000 gallons of water were thrown on the flames before the spot fire ignited on the hillside.

“We spared no resources or bodies to jump on this today,” Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue chief Dave Parmley said. Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue was first on scene, roughly 10 minutes after the call came in from a motorist traveling Montezuma Road. The call went out to the Summit County Wildland Task Force, which means all available entities were notified.

The spot fire is in a difficult place, Lipsher said. It ignited about 3 miles from Keystone on Montezuma Road.

“It’s on the south side of the road up in heavy timber and all,” he said, adding that with winds gusting up to 40 mph, more crews were needed to contain the blaze.

“Any time you have live embers, the slightest wind can fan it into a full-blown wildfire again,” Lipsher said. “You don’t like to see a wildland fire on a day with winds like this.”

Last year’s Keystone Gulch Fire smoldered for more than a week after it was contained, and other fires have reignited with wind months after they’ve been extinguished.

The fire in underbrush next to snowbanks was a strange sight to Parmley, who said the late March blaze could be the earliest he’s seen in the High Country.

“Conditions are changing rapidly,” he said. “This is indicative of the extremely dry conditions and what the wind is doing to us.”

Kremmling’s wildland fire crew arrived on scene at 6:15 and some Vail crews were en route at the time. The Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire based in Grand Junction sent three wildland engines and two hand crews in the early evening.

Firefighting could extend well into the Monday evening and into today, Lipsher said.

The fire was started by a tree falling on a powerline on land owned by Denver Water, according to the sheriff’s office. As a precaution, Xcel Energy turned off power in the area, with no estimate as to when it would be restored.

Lipsher said they’ve been anticipating an early start to the wildfire season due to the relatively dry winter.

“We’ve put all wildland firefighting rigs through their mechanical testing to make sure they’re fully rigged for everything we need,” he said. “In addition, we moved up the annual wildland training, which will be April 1 to get them in the classroom.”

There have already been several flares along the Front Range, he said, though this is the first this season in Summit County. Conditions hearken back to 2002, when the Hayman Fire broke out and other significant wildfires burned in the Rocky Mountains, Lipsher added.

He emphasized “heightened alert” in deciding when to burn campfires, slash piles and operating motorized tools and equipment in the backcountry. Even catalytic converters on ATVs have ignited fires, he said.

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