50 evacuations near De Beque as blaze grows
Update 10:30 a.m.
Fire officials will hold a media briefing on the Pine Ridge Fire today at 4:30 p.m. in DeBeque.
Go to the pull-out north of the Kum and Go on the east side of the 45 Road near the “Welcome to DeBeque” sign. (45 Road is the road into DeBeque off the interstate.)
For more information, call 970 456-3623.
Update 10 a.m.
The BLM reports the fire has grown to 12,047 acres. A Type I incident team, which can access national resources, is scheduled to take command of firefighting efforts on Saturday.
About 35 oil and gas wells are in the affected area. Operators have shut-in the wells, which means they are not producing.
Update 8 a.m.
Bureau of Land Management officials report the fire did not cross I-70 last night and that keeping the fire contained to the west side of the interstate will remain a priority today. Closures of the interstate today remain a possibility.
A burnout operation on the northeast flank of the fire was successful yesterday. The burnout created a fire break between the fire and De Beque. Existing evacuation orders remain in place, however.
The fire is now five percent contained.
Update 7 a.m.
One lane of I-70 in each direction has been opened through De Beque Canyon.
Update 6:30 a.m.
One eastbound lane of I-70 has been reopened. Westbound lanes remain closed, starting at exit 62.
An overflow crowd of at least 200 De Beque residents heard Thursday night they may be evacuated over the coming days to either Parachute or Palisade, all dependent on the mood of a growing wind-whipped wildfire which closed a smoky Interstate 70.
“I’ve never seen fire do some of things that we’ve seen this year,” Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey told the crowd. “It’s scary here.”
Growing more than tenfold from Wednesday, the 10,000-acre Pine Ridge Fire southwest of De Beque blew up Thursday as winds kicked up over the afternoon, spreading in all directions and coming within a stone’s throw of the westbound traffic lanes of I-70.
A 13-mile stretch of the highway from the Powderhorn exit to the De Beque exit was closed.
The Bureau of Land Management said it planned to map the blaze from the air overnight to get an accurate estimate of acreage burned.
While roughly 50 residents southeast of De Beque were evacuated Thursday afternoon and offered shelter at Palisade High School, Hilkey laid out an uncertain scenario for a possible mandatory evacuation of the entire town De Beque over the coming days. The sheriff said authorities were concerned today’s projected weather may push flames toward De Beque.
“If Interstate 70 is still closed, we’ll go down 45 1/2 Road to the De Beque Cutoff, to Highway 65 and to Grand Junction,” Hilkey said, adding evacuees would be directed to Palisade High School.
“If the fire jumps I-70 and reaches 45 1/2 Road, both of which would be closed, we’ll send people to Parachute,” Hilkey added, saying they’ve receive a commitment from Grand Valley High School to assist.
Hilkey said any evacuation notice will include phone calls from 911 dispatchers in Grand Junction, while some 206 such calls went out late Thursday afternoon to residences and business on the south side of De Beque, closer to I-70.
DeBeque, which registered a population of 504 in the 2010 census, also has other means of notifying residents.
“We have a siren and everyone in town can hear it clearly,” a woman yelled at Hilkey from the back of the De Beque Community Center Thursday night.
“We’ll build that into our contingency plan,” the sheriff replied.
Russell Long, division chief with the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management team, said a staff of 100 firefighters and support staff were on the ground, and the number of resources was growing.
With the acceleration of the fire Thursday afternoon, the BLM formally issued a request for a Type 1 overhead management team, Catherine Robertson, Grand Junction BLM Field Office Director, told the crowd Thursday night. Type 1 teams consist of the most skilled federal firefighters.
“This is the same type of team they have on the Front Range right now,” Robertson said. “We’re trying to give you the best resources to work this fire, but we have to be patient.”
Long acknowledged the Pine Ridge blaze was in something of a “competition” for resources with the wildfires charring the Front Range.
Tanker planes were seen throughout Thursday making several passes around the blaze, while officials held out hope that a heavy-duty helicopter capable of dropping 1,500-gallon water bombs on the blaze might be available by Friday.
“We can do bucket drops in the (Colorado) river,” Robertson said. “Part of the reason we have to shut down I-70 is safety.”
Grand Valley Power officials announced late Thursday evening that they may de-energize power lines in the De Beque area should the fire advance toward those lines in order to keep firefighters safe, a move that would leave customers in the area without power for an extended period of time.
The power company said it is working with the incident commander on the fire to monitor it and has dispatched linemen to locations ahead of the fire so that they’re in position to de-energize the lines if it becomes necessary to do so.
In the event lines are de-energized, Grand Valley Power encourages customers to keep refrigerators and freezers closed to minimize the impacts an extended outage could have on food storage. Officials said they will keep customers informed about any action taken with the power lines.
City Editor Mike Wiggins contributed to this report.