Crews keep Rifle fire in check
Tim Lewis knows what it’s like to lose a house to fire.
After going through it once in Iowa, he took extra care doing mitigation work with the home he moved to in Colorado wildfire country north of Rifle in Colorado in 2007.
“We have tried to clear a lot of stuff away from the property,” Lewis said.
Still, Lewis admitted Saturday to being “very” concerned about his home’s prospects as the 682-acre Ward Gulch Fire burned perhaps a third of the mile to the west of it, several miles north of Rifle Gap Reservoir.
Evacuated from his home along Colorado Highway 325, he was unnerved after talking to a Forest Service employee at the roadblock leading to his home.
“You could tell he was concerned. It’s this wind,” Lewis said late Saturday afternoon as the typical later-day winds kicked up.
Those winds worried fire officials as well. The incident commander, Jeff Berino, told reporters that winds of up to 30 mph created a high probability of the blaze escaping fire lines in the piñon-juniper forest.
“Piñon is a wind-driven fuel and the next three or four hours have us worried,” Berino said during a 3 p.m. press briefing.
But by Saturday evening, those lines appeared to have generally held.
“I guess we’re feeling pretty good about our position right now,” fire spokesman Pat Thrasher said then. “So far things seem to be holding.”
The fire grew by at least 40 acres Saturday and was expected to be 15 percent contained by day’s end. While the fire is more than twice the size it was thought to be Friday evening, most of the increased acreage Saturday was a result of improved mapping rather than actual fire growth, Thrasher said.
Crews worked Saturday to better fireproof the dozen evacuated homes on Colorado Highway 325, and fire engines are parked outside each home.
“Right now we feel very good about the homes with the engines we have up there,” Berino said.
He told evacuated residents at a meeting Saturday afternoon that it would be another day before he could address when the evacuations might end. An evacuation center has been set up by the Red Cross at the Garfield County Fairgrounds in Rifle, but the only ones to have used it were a few dislocated campers.
The closest home was about a quarter-mile from the fire Saturday. Another 25 non-residential structures also are in the area threatened by the fire.
The fire is burning on Bureau of Land Management land. Its cause is being attributed to lightning. Lightning strikes were recorded in the remote area of the fire’s start Thursday.
Another such strike caused a fire that flared up Thursday night southwest of Rifle. The Beaver Creek Fire grew to nearly 15 acres but was expected to be fully contained Saturday.
Another fire presumed to be caused by the same lightning storm sprang to life Saturday afternoon on the Roan Plateau west of Rifle. At last report the new fire remained at a fraction of an acre. Air crews working the Ward Gulch Fire made a couple of water drops on that fire.
Along with the 12 homes, the Ward Gulch Fire caused evacuations of the Rifle Falls State Park campground, the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery, and the city-owned Rifle Mountain Park rock-climbing and camping area. All those facilities remain closed, as does Highway 325 north of Rifle Gap.
About 200 firefighters are on the scene, with crews coming from multiple states. No one has been injured fighting the fire.
Numerous planes and helicopters are attacking the fire by trying to box it in with retardant and water drops so ground crews can safely work to shore up fire lines.
“I feel pretty good with the resources we’ve got on the fire,” said Steve Bennett, manager of the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office.
Berino said some aircraft have been released from Front Range fires.
“We’ve been grabbing them before someone else gets them,” he said.
What’s called a very large air tanker — a DC-10 — made a single run from Pueblo with 20,000 gallons of retardant and dropped it in three phases over the fire.
RETARDANT CAN COST AS MUCH AS $60,000
Berino said that amount of retardant can cost as much as $60,000. Officials have no estimate on the total cost of fighting the fire, but it will be a federal expense because it’s on federal land.
Rifle Gap Reservoir remains open, but boating is prohibited because helicopters are picking up water there, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife is discouraging visits to the reservoir. It is recommending that boaters go to Harvey Gap Reservoir north of Silt instead, but Parks and Wildlife notes that a 20-horsepower limit on motorized boats applies there.
Bennett said crews are trying to protect the watershed in the area of the fish hatchery because if it burns, sediment and debris flows could result.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Mike Porras said such contamination isn’t a big concern because the hatchery’s water source comes from underground via a pipeline. A bigger concern is falling ash, he said.
The facility is the largest trout hatchery in Colorado owned and operated by the state.
Porras said there’s not a significant concern if fish aren’t fed for a few days because of evacuated personnel. But he added that the hatchery superintendent was allowed to check on the facility since the evacuation, and it’s possible repeat visits will be permitted if conditions are safe enough.
The East Rifle Creek watershed that’s threatened by the fire is not a source for the city of Rifle, which gets its water from the Colorado River and Beaver Creek. City manager Matt Sturgeon said the fire up Beaver Creek was small and not likely a threat to the water supply.
But he’s hoping the fire stays out of Rifle Mountain Park, which is a world-renowned rock-climbing area and also has facilities including a community house used for things such as wedding receptions.
The blaze is being treated as a full suppression fire, as opposed to some fires that agencies are comfortable allowing to burn at least in some directions. Thrasher said the full-suppression approach is because of the structures and resources requiring protection, and the desire not to add to the demand for firefighting resources in Colorado and elsewhere.
“Our intent is to keep this fire as small as possible,” he said.
Berino said one big concern is to keep the fire from crossing Highway 325. Should that happen it could “gain some traction” and threaten additional structures, and a regional rather than local incident management team will be brought in.
Lewis said he was allowed to return to his home to double-check for important items he may have forgotten to remove. He was heartened to see that fire crews had cleared his deck of lawn chairs, removed other flammable materials from around the home, and even put a sprinkler on his deck.
He appreciates and is reassured by such efforts to protect homes.
But he added, “Obviously we made it clear to them, don’t risk your own life for this because this (Highway 325) is a tough road to get out of.”
Noting the history of firefighter fatalities in the region, including the deaths of 14 people on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Berino said safety is the priority on the Ward Gulch Fire.
“The piñon juniper does worry us. If that fire builds up a head of steam with the wind we’re going to pull out” firefighters to protect them, he said.
CASPER, Wyo. — A Toronto-based mining company has decided to stop drilling additional uranium wells, which means 26 Wyoming employees will be out of work at the end of June.
Uranium One Inc. will lay off 16 employees at its Willow Creek Mine, which straddles the Campbell and Johnson county border. Another 10 employees who work in Casper in support roles also will be without jobs.
Donna Wichers, a senior vice president with the company, says 76 Wyoming employees will continue to work for the company, which will focus on production in current well fields. A well field is an area on which several hundred wells are drilled into the ground.