Wildfire near Camp Hale is heavily guarded | VailDaily.com

Wildfire near Camp Hale is heavily guarded

Cliff Thompson

Sunday night near Camp Hale, lightning ignited a tree, and fire crews are a more than a little hesitant to extinguish it.

Indeed, the electric genie found a place in the forest firefighters fear to tread They don’t want to send aircraft to drop water or slurry, either.

It’s a single “snag” smoldering in the midst of unexploded World War II ordinance near a place soldiers called “Nazi Village.” Soldiers poured tons of ordnance on that target during training exercises decades ago, and as much as 10 percent of that still may be unexploded.

That’s a problem for firefighters. They can’t go in by foot to fight the fire for fear of setting of an explosion; and they can’t use slurry bombers or helicopters for fear water could dislodge rocks, setting off ordinance and possibly knocking an airplane from the sky.

“It’s just too dangerous to put people on the ground or in the air,” said East Zone Fire Management officer Eric Rebitzke.

He said Army Corps experts recommended aircraft fly at least 500 to 1,000 feet above the area – too high to drop water or slurry effectively.

“We’ll let the fire do its thing,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll get some rain.”

The Chicago Ridge Fire is on a steep northwestern slope at 10,600 feet above sea level near Jones Gulch, two miles east of U.S. Highway 24, south of Camp Hale and 10 miles north of Leadville. A single snag is smoldering amidst heavy fuel.

Camp Hale was home to up to about 15,000 members of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which trained there from 1942 through 1965. Unexploded munitions have been found in the area nearly every year since the camp was closed. It’s continuously being brought to the surface by successive freeze-and-thaw cycles. Portions of hillsides near the old base have been closed by the U.S. Forest Service until munitions crews can clear the devices, which become more unstable as they age.

Rebitzke said the plan for now is to let the fire do as it pleases. In the mean time a backup plan is being forged.

“We’ll be monitoring it daily. If we don’t get good rain, it’s likely to keep smoldering,” he said. “Hopefully it will go out on its own.”

Humidity is fairly high in the area, 40 percent, and afternoon and evening rains have dampened the forest, lessening the fire danger.

Another lightning strike from a storm cell several days ago ignited a juniper tree Monday morning about three miles north of Eagle. Fire crews quickly snuffed it out, however.

Recent, widespread rains have lessened the fire danger, which has had firefighters at their highest level for weeks, spawned open fire restrictions and prompted cancellation of Fourth of July fireworks displays. Nationally, nearly 2.5 million acres have burned.

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