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Tuesday updates: Ptarmigan Fire

A helicopter approaches the Ptarmigan Fire near Silverthorne on Tuesday, Sept. 28.
Joe Staley/Courtesy photo

Editor’s note: This story is no longer being updated.

7:19 p.m. The Ptarmigan Fire has grown to between 85 and 100 acres, according to an update provided by officials at Silverthorne Town Hall Tuesday evening, Sept. 28.

Adam Bianchi, district ranger with the Dillon Ranger District, said overall, it was a good day for fire managers and the community at large, as the fire’s growth was primarily to the north and east away from residential areas to the southwest.

“We really focused our efforts on the western flank and the south heel of the fire,” Bianchi said. “We really were concentrating to make sure that the fire was not moving down into the subdivision. You can see there that we were successful.”

While rain did provide some help in quelling the blaze Tuesday afternoon, Bianchi said it also grounded aircraft working to build containment. Officials are hoping to attack the fire with aircraft again Wednesday, Sept. 29, before more precipitation moves into the area.

“It is looking like precipitation will not be coming until … midafternoon or so (Wednesday),” Bianchi said. “So that will give us all morning to hit it hard again with the same air resources that we had today.”

Crews on the ground have yet to engage with the fire or build any containment, due mostly to dangerous conditions related to “snags” like dead trees that could fall on firefighters, according to Incident Commander Eric White.

Summit Fire & EMS Public Information Officer Steve Lipsher said it was too early to determine a cause for the fire.

Bianchi said firefighters and engines would remain on scene overnight to monitor the fire and to protect homes in the area if necessary.

6:30 p.m. Eric White, Type 3 incident management team commander, reported that there is no containment on the fire.

Summit Fire & EMS spokesperson Steve Lipsher directed community members who wish to donate food to the American Red Cross and the Family and Intercultural Resource Center. He noted that firefighters are provided with food.

6:22 p.m. Officials provided an update at Silverthorne Town Hall Tuesday evening. The Ptarmigan Fire acreage has grown to between 85-100 acres. A total of 536 homes are under mandatory evacuation orders or pre-evacuation orders.

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said evacuated Angler Mountain and Hamilton Creek residents will have a window from 8-10 a.m. to return home on Wednesday, Sept. 29. Residents who wish to return home during this window must get a credential at Silverthorne Town Hall. Credentials are being offered until 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 28 and starting at 7 a.m. on Wednesday.

FitzSimons said officials will continue to look for opportunities for evacuated residents to return home temporarily to retrieve forgotten items.

3:52 p.m. The Summit County Sheriff’s Office has issued a new pre-evacuation notice for homes east and uphill of Summit County Road 2020 and north of Summit County Road 2021. The pre-evacuation notice includes Daley Ranch.

Residents in the area should be prepared to leave. Here’s what to pack.

3:05 p.m. Rainfall over the Silverthorne area has helped to moderate fire behavior, but it also grounded aircraft working to contain the blaze, according to the most recent update from the U.S. Forest Service.

The fire has grown to an estimated 83 acres in size.

2:11 p.m. It began raining in Summit County at around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 28. According to the National Weather Service’s Silverthorne forecast, showers are likely through Tuesday night. Chances for rain and snow are in the forecast through the weekend. Officials are hoping the precipitation will help firefighting efforts.

The next public update meeting is at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Silverthorne Town Hall.

12:45 p.m. Officials provided an update on the Ptarmigan Fire at Silverthorne Town Hall this morning.

Adam Bianchi, district ranger with the Dillon Ranger District, said the fire grew about 40 acres overnight and is currently around 60 acres based on mapping from an aircraft mission Monday and early estimates Tuesday morning.

“We saw a lot of fire activity over the night, which, with temperatures dropping, it was a little surprise to us to see a lot of the torching that we saw,” Bianchi said. “And a lot especially in some of those aspen stands, as well. So it was a little unprecedented.”

Bianchi said the cause of the fire was still unknown, but he noted that it started in an area near a trail, suggesting it may have been human caused.

Bianchi said there was currently a significant aircraft response taking place, including a large air tanker dropping retardant along the perimeter of the blaze. He said firefighters would tie containment lines into the Ptarmigan Trail, and drop as much retardant as possible on the west and south sides of the fire.

“That is the critical spot for us,” Bianchi said. “We don’t want it to continue to move downhill into the housing development where our structures are at. So we’re really trying to work on this flank. The great thing about it is that is predominantly where a lot of the aspen is. We’ve got some grass and sage. So it is an area where we can start to engage the fire a little more aggressively.”

Bianchi said there were currently two 20-person hand crews in route in addition to a seven-person ground crew currently helping to direct air resources.

Officials are also hoping rain forecast this afternoon and over the coming days will help firefighting efforts.

“Looking into the next couple days, that’s really going to be our goal, we’re going to (shore) up some of these spot fires,” Bianchi said. “… The column kind of laid down to the north last night and caused some of these spot fires, and so we’re really going to look at those and try to (shore) up those as well to make sure those don’t continue to grow and push the fire further north. We’re looking at additional precipitation in the next couple days, as well, so we’re really looking forward to utilizing the weather to help us fight this along with air resources and the ground resources that are coming.”

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said a total of about 617 homes in the Hamilton Creek, Angler Mountain and South Forty neighborhoods are currently under either an evacuation order or pre-evacuation notice. The homes are valued at an estimated $400 million, FitzSimons said.

He went on to provide some additional insight into the decision to issue a mandatory evacuation order in the upper Angler Mountain neighborhood Tuesday morning.

“With the incoming storm and the winds changing direction … we just want to be prudent and proactive and obviously precautionary,” FitzSimons said. “It’s easier to move people out of these neighborhoods, like we did last night, while things are like this rather than a last-minute panic. So we ask for a little bit of grace. We ask for your patience.”

FitzSimons said he and other fire managers will continue to look for opportunities to allow evacuated residents back to into their homes temporarily. County staff members are currently credentialing evacuees at Silverthorne Town Hall so that, when allowed, officials can keep track of who returns to the evacuation zone and to ensure everyone makes it back out. Residents will not be allowed to return to their homes without being issued credentials.

Both FitzSimons and Bianchi also spoke to the importance of keeping drones out of the area.

“If (the Forest Service) has aircraft in the air and a drone flies up in the air, they’ve got to immediately ground all those aircraft,” FitzSimons said. “So if we ground all the aircraft, we’re not able to fight the fire because it is not safe at this point to put ground crews in the area. … I do have federal law enforcement partners … that will find these people flying drones, and they will go after them.”

Commissioner Josh Blanchard urged everyone to respond appropriately to evacuation and pre-evacuation orders.

“If you’re given that evacuation notice, we need you to leave immediately and safely,” Blanchard said. “Make sure that you have your credentials and the recommended items that you have with you.”

Blanchard also thanked community members who have reached out to offer support to evacuees and the numerous mutual-aid responders from neighboring communities.

“We know that Summit County is special,” Blanchard said. “We know that our mountain community pulls together to support one another in times of need in ways that are truly unique. … We will get through this together.”

11:35 a.m. The cause of the fire is under investigation. Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi noted that the fire started along a trail, hinting that it was likely human caused.

11:30 a.m. A public information hotline has been set up at 970-668-9700.

11:29 a.m. All evacuation and pre-evacuation areas total 617 homes, valued at $400 million, according to Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons. As a reminder, the Hamilton Creek and upper Angler Mountain neighborhoods are under mandatory evacuation orders. Residents on Bald Eagle Road, Fly Line Drive and below are currently under a pre-evacuation notice along with the South Forty neighborhood.

11:27 a.m. The fire is estimated at about 57 acres today, after growing about 40 acres overnight, according to Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi, who called the estimation a ballpark. He said the size of the fire was confirmed at 17 acres at 10 p.m. Monday, smaller than officials initially guessed. Bianchi said officials were surprised by the overnight growth.

11 a.m. Live update is set to start any minute at Silverthorne Town Hall, 601 Center Circle. Watch in English and Spanish at Facebook.com/summitdailynews.

10:31 a.m. The Summit County Office of Emergency Management has issued a mandatory evacuation order for the upper Angler Mountain neighborhood. Residents on Bald Eagle Road, Fly Line Drive and below are currently under a pre-evacuation notice.

Original story:

The mandatory evacuation order of the Hamilton Creek neighborhood will remain in place Tuesday, Sept. 28, while firefighters and aircraft work to contain the Ptarmigan Fire burning on U.S. Forest Service land near Silverthorne.

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said Tuesday morning that the fire grew overnight, but he couldn’t provide an updated acreage. The latest update from the U.S. Forest Service on Monday night estimated that the fire was between 30 and 40 acres.

FitzSimons said the fire hasn’t reached any homes.

“It’s continuing to creep toward Hamilton Creek,” FitzSimons said. “It’s actually really odd; it’s creeping both north and south, so it’s not going east up and over.”

Two smoke plumes from the Ptarmigan Fire show the flames are spreading in opposite directions Tuesday, Sept. 28.
Meg Boyer/Summit Daily News

Pre-evacuation orders remain in place in the Angler Mountain Ranch and South Forty neighborhoods. FitzSimons said a pre-evacuation order has also been issued for Silverthorne Elementary School, though the school will operate as usual for now.

Officials have ordered a considerable amount of resources to combat the fire Tuesday, including three large air tankers, two single-engine air tankers, three helicopters and four hand crews. FitzSimons said officials believe it is still too dangerous for crews on the ground to engage the blaze, and firefighting operations will be primarily conducted through the air Tuesday. There are resources on the ground ready to step in if the fire continues to move toward residential areas.

“The public can expect quite the air show,” FitzSimons said. “… There is structure protection staged in those neighborhoods. There are six engines assigned to nothing but protecting homes.”

Officials will host two public meetings at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesday at Silverthorne Town Hall to provide updates for community members.

FitzSimons said there will also be an opportunity for residents in the Hamilton Creek neighborhood to temporarily return to their homes to pick up any important items they may have left behind while evacuating. When that will happen has yet to be determined. Once a time is set, evacuees will be required to visit Silverthorne Town Hall to be credentialed before making their way to the road closure point at the bottom of Hamilton Creek neighborhood.

Officials are asking community members to stay out of the area whenever possible so that roads are clear of traffic for police and firefighting resources. FitzSimons also urged residents with drones to keep them grounded so they don’t interfere with other aircraft working to contain the fire.

“We’re having a real problem with drones,” he said. “It’s illegal to fly drones over wildfires, and if drones are in the air, we can’t fly.”

Recreational trails in the area remain closed to the public.

Photos: Readers share images of the Ptarmigan Fire near Silverthorne

Flames from the Ptarmigan Fire are seen on U.S. Forest Service land near Silverthorne on Monday, Sept. 27. Evacuation orders have been issued.
Jeff Scroggins/Courtesy photo
A plane drops fire retardant onto the Ptarmigan Fire.
Will Yahr/Courtesy photo
Ptarmigan Fire flames are seen from Silverthorne.
Joe Staley/Courtesy photo
An air tanker makes a slurry drop on the Ptarmigan Fire.
Joe Staley/Courtesy photo
Smoke from the Ptarmigan Fire is seen from Swan Mountain Road at approximately 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 27.
Julieanne Gilchrist/Courtesy photo
Firefighting on the Ptarmigan Fire is seen through aspen leaves.
Todd Ulmer/Courtesy photo
The ground smolders from the Ptarmigan Fire on Monday, Sept. 27.
Trevor Rhodes/Courtesy photo
The Ptarmigan Fire is pictured after sunset.
Shane Nance/Courtesy photo

 

How investigators found the tree that started the Black Mountain Fire in Grand County

This image shows a tree that was struck by lightning, which investigators believe ignited the Black Mountain Fire. Investigators were able to quickly pinpoint the cause of the fire thanks to reduced fire behavior.
Black Mountain Fire Facebook page/Courtesy photo

GRANBY — After determining that lightning ignited the Black Mountain Fire, investigators have shared photos of the tree where they think the fire began.

Images shared Friday, Sept. 3, show a tree struck by lightning that investigators say caused the fire. The bark and wood had separated from the tree, and the tree was split at the bottom, both of which are common evidence of a lightning strike.

With the Black Mountain Fire burning just a few miles away from the East Troublesome Fire burn scar, many have wondered why the cause of this new fire was found so much faster.

The East Troublesome Fire, which ignited Oct. 14, 2020, was determined to be human-caused, but fire officials have not released any further information.

Mike De Fries, spokesperson for the incident management team working the Black Mountain Fire, explained that determining the cause of the Black Mountain Fire in less than a week was possible because of a number of specific circumstances.

“This is a different fire, and it all just happened to work out that the timing was such that they could come back with a cause within a number of days in this particular case,” De Fries said. “Every wildfire, every fire has unique circumstances, and there are often very good reasons why a cause is announced at a certain point.”

Investigation of the Black Mountain Fire began by examining the available evidence, such as pictures, video and drone footage. Using images and mapping data, fire behavior analysts pinpointed the source of the Black Mountain Fire to an approximate location, De Fries explained.

Investigators also knew that there had been a number of recent lightning strikes in the area. That’s not enough to determine the cause of a fire, though.

“You may know where the fire started in general, but this is still an active incident,” De Fries said. “However, fire activity has calmed. In that area where the fire started, things cooled to the point where, at some point late (last) week, they could actually hike in, and examine and get right up close in the area where the fire started. We still have to have boots on the ground to help determine the cause.”

Images shared Friday, Sept. 3, show a tree that was struck by lightning, which investigators say ignited the Black Mountain Fire. The fire was discovered Aug. 29.
Black Mountain Fire Facebook page/Courtesy photo

From there, investigators looked at burn intensity and traced the fire back to the beginning. In this case, a tree that was struck by lightning happened to be right there.

While humans are thought to be the cause of most wildfires, U.S. Forest Service data analyzing wildfires in the western U.S. from 1992 to 2015 found that lightning caused 44% of fires, but lightning-ignited wildfires were responsible for 71% of the area burned.

“As for why that is, there could be a number of reasons,” De Fries said. “There could be a lightning-caused fire that nobody noticed because often times it’s very remote and the fire has time to take off.”

When lightning strikes a tree, sap boils, steam is generated and cells explode in the wood, leading to physical damage and often the ignition of a fire. The Black Mountain Fire was first reported Aug. 29 but was burning too aggressively for initial attack crews to extinguish it.

As of Monday, Sept. 6, the Black Mountain Fire remained at 416 acres and containment had increased to 48%.

Berm built on Grizzly Creek burn scar likely prevented major damage to Hanging Lake Tunnels

Damage left behind from a mud and debris slide that flooded Cinnamon Creek above the Hanging Lake Tunnels on Thursday, July 22.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

A major rock and debris flow down the Devil’s Hole drainage in Glenwood Canyon last week was largely unexpected in terms of its impact on Interstate 70, state transportation officials said Wednesday.

The massive debris flow caused by a rainstorm the evening of July 22 dumped piles of large rocks and trees into the Colorado River, damming the river and forcing it out of its channel up against the highway’s eastbound deck structure.

Concerns about the water and debris compromising the highway structure ultimately closed I-70 for the better part of two days as a result. Westbound lanes weren’t reopened until early Saturday morning, and the eastbound lanes remained closed until later that day.

“The reason we didn’t open up the highway on Friday is because we didn’t know what the river was doing underneath the road itself,” Colorado Department of Transportation Region 3 Director Mike Goolsby said Wednesday during a media tour of the impacted area.

A major debris slide partially blocks a section of the Colorado River near mile marker 124 in Glenwood Canyon after a flash flood swept rocks and debris down the Devil’s Hole drainage on Thursday, July 22.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

“Until we were able to get our folks out there to evaluate it, we weren’t completely comfortable opening up the road,” he said.

Goolsby called the threat to the highway in that particular location “totally unexpected.”

“We had been worried about the road surface and getting the traffic through, so this was something we were not completely prepared for planning-wise, in terms of the amount of debris that came down,” Goolsby said.

What was expected given rain event and debris flow modeling that was done after last summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire played out that same night just a few miles to the east in the Cinnamon Creek drainage above CDOT’s Hanging Lake Tunnel Command Center.

Largely out of sight from passing motorists, the command center was built in the natural drainage when I-70 was completed through Glenwood Canyon in the early 1990s. The building structure essentially connects two sections of eastbound and westbound tunnel bores to make one long tunnel.

It also serves as the central command system for the state highway system on the Western Slope of Colorado, with a staff of 35 people, a full fire response unit and camera eyes on virtually every section of I-70 in the canyon.

Last summer, during the height of the wildfire that started Aug. 10, 2020, and closed I-70 through Glenwood Canyon for nearly two weeks, a special Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team inspected the area and predicted exactly what happened July 22.

The recommendation at the time was to build a large earthen berm to the west of the creek drainage to protect the tunnel command center should a major debris flow occur.

Damage left behind from a mud and debris slide that flooded Cinnamon Creek above the Hanging Lake Tunnels on Thursday, July 22.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

During last week’s storm, upward of 100,000 cubic yards of material did in fact come rushing down Cinnamon Creek directly toward the tunnel structure, but was diverted by the berm and out of harm’s way.

“This berm basically stopped this complex from filling up with mud and debris,” said John Lorme, CDOT director of maintenance and operations.

“Had it not been here, we’d be trying to figure out how we’re going to clear all these tunnels out and rebuild this whole complex.”

Lorme called it a perfect example of an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure.

Damage left behind from a mud and debris slide that flooded Cinnamon Creek above the Hanging Lake Tunnels on Thursday, July 22.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Damage was limited to a clogged and mildly damaged concrete culvert that normally channels the creek around the command center.

“It literally probably saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars,” Lorme said of the berm — not to mention what likely would have been an indefinite closure of I-70 through the canyon.

The berm was paid for out of just a small portion of the millions of dollars in emergency funds that were released to deal with the Grizzly Creek Fire impacts. Rather than bidding out what would have been about a $50,000 project, CDOT handled the work in house, saving even more dollars.

In any event, Hanging Lake Tunnels operational manager Trevor Allen said the command center had an evacuation plan in place and preparations to set up a temporary operations center in Glenwood Springs, if need be.

Back downstream at the Devil’s Hole debris flow site, heavy earthmoving equipment was brought in by train Wednesday to begin moving the tons of rock and other debris that’s now clogging the Colorado River.

CDOT crews begin off loading equipment to begin removing some of the rocks from the debris slide in the Colorado River that came down the Devil's Hole drainage near MM124 in Glenwood Canyon on Thursday, July 22.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

The goal is to cut a pilot channel from the south side of the river and remove as much debris as possible to push the river back into its normal channel and away from the highway, where it now covers most of the recreation path that runs along the interstate.

The risk if the debris is not removed is that the flow of the river could undercut the highway deck structure and cause more severe damage.

“Right now we’re confident that it’s safe,” Goolsby said. “We just want to get the water away from the roadway so we can go in and make any repairs that we need to.”

As far as the highway itself goes, that’s not expected to be too extensive. The recreation path could be a different story, as several sections are believed to have been damaged by the recent mudslides, he said.

CDOT Region Transportation Director Mike Goolsby talks about the debris slide that came down from the Devil's Hole drainage and partially dammed a portion of the Colorado River Thursday, July 22 in Glenwood Canyon near MM124.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

It’s likely to remain closed for the foreseeable future until that damage can be assessed and repairs made, Goolsby said. Similar extensive repairs have had to be made in high runoff years when the path has been damaged.

The focus now, and likely into the fall until the seasonal monsoonal weather subsides, is to keep the traveling public and recreational users safe, Goolsby said.

Any time there is a flash flood watch for the area including Glenwood Canyon, rest areas along the 16-mile stretch are closed and CDOT crews are put on alert to be prepared in the event of a flood.

If the watch is elevated to a flash flood warning, meaning heavy rains and flooding in areas are imminent, I-70 through the canyon is closed to traffic.

So far, about 80% of the time that has happened in recent weeks there has been a mud and debris flow at some location in the canyon, Goolsby said.

That, in turn, leads to a more lengthy closure, oftentimes overnight and into the next day, while crews remove the material from the road surface and make sure all is safe for traffic to flow again.

Traffic continues through Glenwood Canyon as logs and debris sit in the Colorado River near MM124 in Glenwood Canyon after last Thursday's storm washed a debris slide down the Devil's Hole drainage partially damming the river.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

That process involves some 40 to 50 CDOT employees, many of whom are brought in from other districts in the state to help with the cleanup, he said.

Also joining the tour Wednesday was CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew. She also spoke to the forward-thinking mitigation that was done to protect the tunnel command center.

“It’s a little eerie being in this spot, after we were here last summer when this berm was being built,” she said. “What you are seeing now is the long tale of what we all sort of knew was coming.”

Glenwood Canyon remains one of the most challenging stretches of highway in the state system, she said, but last year’s fires and recent storms have had major impacts all across the state, including the deadly flash flood in Poudre Canyon recently below the Cameron Peak Fire burn scar.

Fortunately, no lives have been lost in Glenwood Canyon, and the CDOT response plan whenever there’s a threat of flooding is meant to keep it that way, Shoshana said.

“Our first priority is to keep people safe and keep them out of harm’s way,” she said. “We beg for people’s patience and caution in this.”

The dangers associated with Glenwood Canyon in particular are unique and require a lot of planning and financial investment, she added.

“As beautiful a gem of the interstate as it is to drive, it’s just extraordinarily complicated with risks,” Shoshana said. “We manage them, but they’re not going to go away.”

15- to 20-acre Straight Creek Fire ignites east of Dillon

 

The Straight Creek Fire burns near Interstate 70 east of Dillon on Thursday, June 10.
Photo from Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons

Editor’s note: I-70 reopened late Thursday, but fire officials warn it likely will close again Friday while crews work to extinguish the blaze.

The Straight Creek Fire ignited off Interstate 70 near Dillon on Thursday afternoon. As of 9 p.m., the fire was about 15 to 20 acres, and firefighters were still on scene working to control it. Officials said no structures are threatened.

At about 6:30 p.m., firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service, Summit Fire & EMS, and the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District responded to a blaze off I-70 near milepost 209 east of Silverthorne, according to Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons. He said the fire is on U.S. Forest Service land.

Summit Fire spokesperson Steve Lipsher said the fire was moving toward the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels, and that residents in Silverthorne and Dillon don’t need to be worried for now.

“The fire is blowing up toward the tunnel, and right now there’s no need for anyone to be overly concerned about the fire reaching developed areas,” Lipsher said. “But I think the bigger issue is its June 10, and we’ve got ourselves a regular, serious wildfire here. … All of this is not the harbinger for the fire season we hoped we would see, but it is a definite moment that should promote contemplation and awareness on behalf of our residents and visitors. We are in fire season, and they need to be prepared for fire season.”

Lipsher said there were about 30 responders on-site Thursday night, including firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and other supporting staff. Aircraft has also responded to the blaze. Firefighters expect the fire to burn overnight.

“It’s burning in dead, standing lodgepole and spruce,” Lipsher said. “We’re seeing torching and active fire behavior blown by the wind. Nothing outrageous or crazy, but it keeps burning down low, and then it will hit what we call jackpots, which are really receptive stands of dead trees, and they’ll just flare up. … It’s going to burn into the night, and hopefully the winds die down, and by morning we’ll be able to make some good headway on knocking this thing down.”

While the fire isn’t currently threatening any structures, Lipsher said there were still values at stake in the area. He said the fire was just a “couple hundred yards” south of the interstate, and road closures could continue as the fire lingers. I-70 eastbound remained closed at Silverthorne Exit 205 as of 9 p.m. Thursday with a detour over Loveland Pass.

Lipsher noted that Straight Creek, nearby where the fire is burning, is a water source for the town of Dillon, and that there were high-tension power lines in the area that had been de-energized.

Earlier Thursday, the local fire districts increased the fire danger level from low to very high. Lipsher said the change in conditions throughout the day was considerable.

“I’ve never seen it go from a rating of low this morning to very high as of now,” Lipsher said. “In one day, we jumped three levels; we skipped moderate and high. … Our humidity is really low for whatever reason. We’re dry, dry, dry.”

Boyd said crews will monitor the fire Thursday night and that more resources are expected to arrive Friday, when the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management unit’s Type 3 Incident Management Team will assume command.

The cause of the fire is undetermined.

Summit Fire crews also responded to a small grass fire in Dillon near the Red Mountain Grill on Thursday. Lipsher said officials believe the fire was started when power lines touching each other sent a shower of sparks to the ground, but the fire never grew more than a couple yards in size.

“Local condo residents very quickly jumped on it,” Lipsher said. “They brought out shovels and buckets of water and had it stomped out before it got anywhere. It was not a threatening wildfire. But the residents did a great job, and good for them for being on top of things and aware. By the time our engine crew arrived, the fire was out.”

Summit County firefighters respond to 2nd wildfire this week

Firefighters with Summit Fire & EMS and the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District work to put out a wildfire at the Knorr Open Space south of Heeney on Monday, April 12.
Photo from Summit Fire & EMS

Firefighters responded to a wildfire at the Knorr Open Space near Heeney on Monday afternoon, according to Summit Fire & EMS spokesperson Steve Lipsher. No injuries from the fire have been reported, and it did not threaten any structures.

The blaze represents the second wildfire of the season after another ignited and was quickly doused near the Summit County Shooting Range on Sunday afternoon.

“This year — because of our thin snowpack and our early drying, especially of those sun-exposed southern slopes — we are seeing early instances of wildfire already,” Lipsher said. “That’s never a good harbinger.”

The Knorr Meadows wildfire, south of Heeney and Green Mountain Reservoir, was first reported just before 1 p.m. Monday. Lipsher said a rancher was burning discarded hay bale wrappers in a 55-gallon drum when some embers escaped the drum and ignited the dry grass in the surrounding area. The fire burned quickly through the short grass and into a stack of rolled hay bales.

“With the wind yesterday, it just sent that racing across this open hay meadow right on the shores of the Green Mountain Reservoir. And in short order, the burning meadows ended up carrying the fire right to a stack of rolled hay bales,” Lipsher said. “That became the most tenacious part of the fire. Otherwise, it just burned so quickly through that hay meadow there was no stopping it. Once it got to those hay bales, it became problematic. It just burned and smoldered and smoked.”

Lipsher said the hay bales were difficult to extinguish because they were rolled so tightly and that firefighters were forced to let them burn a little bit while trying to prevent embers from escaping and creating new spot fires in the area. Firefighters were able to surround and douse the blaze, and keep it from escaping the perimeter.

The fire, which burned 31 acres of pasture land and a stack of about 75 hay bales, burned and smoldered throughout the night while a fire crew worked to ensure no embers escaped.

Lipsher said the burning of slash piles requires a permit but the burning of agricultural piles doesn’t. He said the burning of agricultural products is somewhat of a gray area but that it’s not an issue that has historically risen to the district’s attention as a chronic problem.

“This one was sort of an isolated incident, one that we hope doesn’t happen again,” Lipsher said. “Accidents happen and mistakes were made.”

While neither of Summit County’s fires this week have been particularly troublesome, Lipsher said a lack of precipitation over the past year has created poor fire conditions heading into the wildfire season. He said local firefighters are already working to complete their “pack tests” to be recertified for wildland firefighting, which he noted they are having to do “earlier and earlier every year.”

Following a devastating wildfire season around the state last year, Lipsher said it is up to local emergency agencies and community members to be prepared for whatever this season brings.

“We’re not in panic mode, but we recognize that we’re in a long-term drought, and we didn’t have a great winter in terms of the snowpack,” Lipsher said. “After the horrific wildfire season we had in Colorado last summer, we definitely have our guard up.”

While rain and snow in this week’s forecast should help to lower fire danger in the short term, Lipsher said residents should be readying their properties now in the event of more fires later this season.

Residents should ensure that they have adequate defensible space on their properties and that flammable materials are removed from nearby their homes. Both Summit Fire and the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District offer free home defensible space assessments. The districts will also provide consultations for homeowners associations and other organizations looking to make their properties safer.

Lipsher said residents — even those in towns — should be prepared for possible evacuations, including having an emergency kit complete with clothes, toiletries, first aid supplies, cellphone chargers, money, important phone numbers and documents, and other special items for pets, infants, the elderly or disabled family members.

Lipsher also urged community members to be exceedingly careful with all sources of heat and to be aware of the “potential for a catastrophe to happen due to one careless moment.”

“We really need to be learning the lessons that have been provided to us at the expense of our neighbors,” Lipsher said. “To that end, we cannot overstate the need for our entire community to be wildfire aware and wildfire prepared.”

Reports gauge severity of soil damage from East Troublesome, Williams Fork fires

This photo shows a comparison of low soil burn severity with roots and structure (top of shovel) vs. high soil burn severity with no soil structure or roots to help bind soil (bottom of shovel).
Photo from the U.S. Forest Service

 

GRANBY — The East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires scorched almost 200,000 acres across nearby Grand County this summer and fall, and new assessments from the U.S. Forest Service detail how badly the land was burned.

Soil burn severity maps cover a fire’s perimeter and serve as important reference tools that span multiple jurisdictions. For that reason, the Forest Service sees these maps as one of the most valuable work products that a Burned Area Emergency Response assessment team can produce.

The new assessments for the East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires were released Thursday, Dec. 24, along with the burn maps for the two fires.

The assessments focus on post-fire threats to life and safety, property, natural resources and cultural resources on national forest lands along with offering some recommendations for how local, state and federal officials might mitigate the aftereffects.

The assessment teams do this by trying to determine soil burn severity and where post-fire snowmelt and precipitation events could lead to increased runoff, flooding, erosion, sediment delivery and heightened debris flows.

What is soil burn severity?

According to the Forest Service, the first step for identifying post-fire threats is to develop a soil burn severity map documenting the degree to which soil properties have changed from fire.

Fire-damaged soils can have low strength, high root mortality and increased erosion rates, especially as the severity of the fire damage worsens.

The maps break the damage down into four classifications — high, moderate, low and unburned — decided by soil properties such as forest floor cover, ash color, integrity of roots and their structure, and water repellency.

Low and unburned areas have minimal effects to the soil and, therefore, little to no noticeable impacts after the fire. At the same time, moderate burn areas indicate that some soil properties have been affected with up to 80% of the duff and litter layer, which absorbs precipitation like a sponge, being consumed by flames.

On the extreme end, findings include significant alterations to the soil with the complete consumption of litter and duff, a loss of root viability and changes that can lead to increased erosion and runoff.

The soil burn severity map for the East Troublesome Fire was released by the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday, Dec. 24. The map shows how badly the fire burned the soil within the fire perimeter and serves as a valuable recovery and planning tool that will be used by multiple agencies.
Map from the U.S. Forest Service

The East Troublesome Fire

First reported Oct. 14 in the Arapaho National Forest, the East Troublesome Fire spread over 10,000 acres in three days and became the largest blaze in Grand County history when it exploded from 18,550 to 187,964 acres from Oct. 20-23. The cause is still under investigation.

Like many wildfires this summer and fall, the Troublesome blaze was fueled by widespread drought, dead and beetle-killed trees, high winds and poor overnight humidity recovery.

Its flames crossed Colorado Highway 125 on Oct. 21 and raced east into the Rocky Mountain National Park, jumping over the Continental Divide and reaching the western edge of Estes Park on Oct. 23.

Two teams from the Forest Service were required to complete the Burned Area Emergency Response assessment, and early season snowfall hampered their efforts and kept them from conducting a field survey in most of the burned area.

While the U.S. Forest Service has created a soil burn severity map for the entire fire outside Rocky Mountain National Park, the report notes that “a significant assessment workload of other critical Forest Service values remains and will be resumed in late spring 2021.”

According to the assessment, most of the land affected by the Troublesome fire falls under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, with 132,916 acres of national forest burned.

However, more than 19,600 acres of private property also burned in the fire, and another 17,858 acres of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management were affected. The smallest portion of the burned area — 832 acres — is owned by the state.

This chart included in the East Troublesome Fire Burned Area Emergency Response assessment shows the distribution of land burned by ownership and severity.

Interestingly, 37% of the land suffered only low burn damage, 48% sustained moderate damage and 5% saw high soil burn severity. Only 10% of the land included in the East Troublesome Fire’s perimeter was characterized as unburned.

With an estimated 53% of the affected area seeing high or moderate soil burn severity, there will be an increased potential for erosion and flooding, especially in areas with high damage, according to the assessment.

The assessment also warns that areas that flood or had high debris flows before the fire are likely to see larger magnitude events after the fire. Also, areas that occasionally flood or have debris flows could see more frequent events, and areas that previously did not have streamflow or debris flows may now flood or have debris flows.

The predicted erosion rates are not expected to affect long-term soil productivity, but increased erosion can result in downstream sediment delivery that bulks flows and increases flooding effects. Increased erosion also can block culverts and other infrastructure and degrade water quality.

“This elevated post-fire response will gradually diminish as vegetation and ground cover levels recover each growing season, although some impacts including elevated snowmelt runoff are likely to persist for a decade or longer,” the report states, explaining that the degree of watershed response will be commensurate to the soil burn severity.

The soil burn severity map for the Williams Fork Fire was also released Thursday, Dec. 24.
Map from the U.S. Forest Service

Williams Fork Fire

The final Burned Area Emergency Response assessment for the Williams Fork Fire was completed Oct. 2, though after its completion, the fire kicked back up and the perimeter grew on the northern and southern ends.

The Williams Fork Fire was fueled by the same conditions that allowed the East Troublesome Fire to grow so fast.

Overall, the assessment found an estimated 60% of the area within the Williams Fork Fire perimeter had high or moderate soil burn severity.

“Increased erosion and flood flow potential are expected within and from these areas,” the report concluded, adding that the potential for erosion will be contingent on a variety of characteristics, such as soil texture, rock fragment content, slope and the soil burn severity and distribution.

With limited options for reducing post-fire peak stream flows, soil erosion and debris flows with either the Williams Fork Fire or the East Troublesome Fire, both assessments recommend focusing on mitigation measures to minimize threats to life and safety as well as damage to property.

These measures could be road and trail closures, trail stabilization, campground treatments and warning signs.

Additional road and weed treatments, and other treatments to protect natural and cultural resources, could be necessary during a follow-up assessment that’s expected in the spring or early summer.

East Troublesome Fire BAER report.pdf

Williams Fork Fire BAER report.pdf

This story is from SkyHiNews.com.

Losses in East Troublesome Fire enormous, still mounting

The Samuelsons survey the damage to the Troublesome Basin, where their outfitting company is based. Two longtime outfitters were hard hit in the East Troublesome Fire along with hundreds of homes. As the fire damage comes into focus, it's clear the losses will be far reaching.
Photo from Richard Samuelson

GRANBY — One of the most destructive fires in Colorado history has subsided, but the rebuilding efforts for Grand County are just beginning.

Formal damage assessments for structures in the county have been completed after the East Troublesome Fire scorched through nearly 200,000 acres in northern Grand County. According to those reports, 555 structures were destroyed, nine buildings suffered major damage and 34 sustained minor damage.

Among the buildings destroyed, 366 were residential and 189 were outbuildings. More than 200 were people’s primary residences.

Losing such a large number of homes in a county that’s already facing a critical housing shortage has been pressing on local officials’ minds. For Sheena Darland, operations manager for the Grand County Housing Authority, it’s painful to see the added strain.

“It’s almost like a sucker punch to the stomach,” she said. “It just makes you sick to think we already had a housing crisis going on, and now our community is uprooted.”

Two surveys went out — one to evacuees and one to homeowners — to begin connecting those in need of a place to stay with those willing to lease out their homes. Darland said more than 190 homeowners signed up to offer their houses to the roughly 50 families who responded needing some sort of housing.

However, many of these homes are only available through the spring. Darland and the county are working with community partners like Snow Mountain Ranch and Sun Communities to find a longer-term solution while seeking funding from state and federal sources.

Unfortunately, these solutions will take time.

“These people are not going to be able to rebuild overnight,” Darland said. “It’s going to be a long haul. And how do we keep them here?”

Scorched livelihoods

Ten buildings belonging to businesses were destroyed in the fire.

That includes buildings at C Lazy U Ranch, Winding River Ranch and Highland Marina. Two longtime outfitters in the area — Dave Parri’s Outfitting & Guide Service and Samuelson Outfitters — also have suffered heavy losses.

Three generations of the Samuelson family have operated in the Troublesome Basin for more than half a century. Cathy Samuelson and her husband, Richard “Sambo” Samuelson, lost most of the 2020 hunting season because of the fire, and two of their camps were destroyed. Two employees lost their homes in the fire, as well.

“It was just so overwhelming,” Cathy Samuelson said, reflecting on the loss. “I consider the basin a backyard and took care of it like it was my own.”

Samuelson is still waiting on a decision from the U.S. Forest Service on whether the area will be open to permitted outfitters next season. Until then, they cannot accept the deposits that usually help pay the bills.

Many buildings lost in the fire were insured, but some damages are more difficult to measure. Insurance and financial aid has been a struggle because the Samuelsons lost no physical, brick-and-mortar structures in the fire. That makes receiving aid difficult while their insurance company is saying many of their tangible losses are not covered.

Samuelson highlighted the deep ties both outfitters have in the community along with the business hunting brings into the county during offseasons.

“(We) have been outfitting and supporting the community for years,” she said. “Especially during the slow time of year, hunting is such a huge financial impact to this community. Its loss is trickle-down, a domino effect. It affects the lodging, the restaurants and those people that work for those businesses. There’s a huge impact.”

Acreage-wise, the fire burned almost 15% of the land in Grand County. With tourism and recreation being Grand’s primary economic drivers, the burn scar over public lands — spanning Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Rocky Mountain National Park — could hamper tourism for years to come.

The county said many ranches have reported a significant or total loss of hay intended for winter feeding of livestock. Damages and impacts associated with agricultural land and operations are ongoing.

The burned land incorporated significant grazing leases held by local producers, and impacts to agriculture irrigation supply and delivery are being assessed.

The East Troublesome Fire destroyed two of the camps operated by the Samuelson Outfitters. The family business still doesn’t know if it will be able to operate next season.
Photo from Richard Samuelson

Price tags

As for the costs to local agencies, the numbers are approximate but expensive.

In a letter to the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the estimated costs of the county’s response has been about $352,000 as of Nov. 12. Those expenses include $80,000 for staff, logistics and emergency protective actions in the Office of Emergency Management; $150,000 for evacuations and emergency protective actions for the Grand County Sheriff’s Office; and $76,000 in overtime for county government employees.

One of the biggest concerns for the county is the fact that departments have reached their capacities.

“Grand County is not a large county in terms of population and overall budget, nor does it have depth within departments and emergency management,” Grand County commissioners wrote in the letter to the state. “Grand County has been responding to multiple fires for almost three months, leading to staff shortages, increased overtime and costs associated with necessary and required resources.”

Before the East Troublesome Fire, the county had been battling the nearly 15,000-acre Williams Fork Fire for over a month. Other fires the county responded to during this dry year included the Dice Hill Fire just on the other side of the county line in Summit County and the Deep Creek Fire outside Kremmling.

Debris removal from the East Troublesome Fire likely will be too much for the county to handle alone. Grand has estimated that debris could exceed over 30,000 cubic yards and cost more than $27 million to haul off.

County officials have reported that underinsured or uninsured homeowners have been reaching out asking for assistance with debris removal.

“The debris management costs can be upward of $50,000 to remove the debris for one single home,” County Manager Kate McIntire said. “I’ve heard that some families are only covered (by insurance) for debris management at $5,000.”

Water’s depths

Various watersheds hit by the fire — including the Poudre River, North Fork of the Big Thompson River, North Fork of the Colorado River, Three Lakes, Willow Creek and East Troublesome Creek — are expected to feel the effects for a long time.

These impacts will reach far beyond Grand County, which supplies water to major cities on the northern Front Range. Northern Water provides water to more than 1 million people, which is equal to 615,000 irrigated acres in northern Colorado.

“Sedimentation, debris flows and water contamination will threaten drinking water supplies for years to come,” the commissioners wrote.

Other environmental impacts like erosion and forest health are only just beginning to be evaluated.

Hazardous tree removal is another concern, as fire damage has made many trees in the burn area a falling hazard. The Colorado State Forest Service estimates more than 1,000 trees will need to be removed in county rights of way.

To give an idea of the extent of damage, the Colorado Department of Transportation had to cut more than 850 hazardous trees along the burned area of Colorado Highway 125 before the road could reopen.

Because the task ahead is so massive, the county has requested continued assistance and assessment regarding debris removal and management from the state.

Impacted utility companies also are asking the state for assistance, including Northern Water, Three Lakes Water and Sanitation District, Mountain Parks Electric and Xcel Energy.

Estimates peg the overall damage from the fire at nearly $200 million. That amount could go up as the aftermath grows clearer.

This story is from SkyHiNews.com.