Fires too frequent in Clifton ditch area

As flames tear through the brush behind them, Clifton firefighters coordinate resources Thursday and pull hose from a firetruck into Lewis Wash along 31 Road. The fire - the third in the same location in one week - was reported about 10 a.m. by a passing motorist.

Fires in a Clifton drainage ditch became so common that the Clifton Fire Protection District wrote specific operational protocol on how to deal with them.

The Lewis Wash, which snakes along 31 Road north of E 1/2 Road, was burning again Thursday morning, the third such fire there in seven days, according to Chris Rowland, Clifton Fire District operations chief.

On average, firefighters respond to the area 10 to 15 times per year, he said, and none of those fires is a controlled burn that got out of control. Nor do any result in criminal prosecution.

Veterans of the department say it’s been a thorn in the side of fire investigators for some 20 years, Rowland said.

The cause of Thursday’s one-acre blaze remains undetermined, but Rowland and company have their suspicions.

Investigating multiple fires over the years, firefighters learned that students at nearby Grand Mesa Middle School and Central High School have pegged it as “The Glades,” a popular hangout loaded with fire fuels such as brush, cottonwood trees and construction materials tossed away from the dozens of homes with backyards backing up to the ditch, Rowland said.

“We need to involve the schools and Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “We find multiple cigarette butts and empty liquor bottles. Kids hang out, have a cigarette and use it as a fort and play area. I don’t believe we’re talking about any one serial arsonist.”

Officials count themselves lucky that none of the roughly half-mile row of homes and properties along the edge of the ditch have burned.

“It’s a danger to structures and kids,” Rowland said. “Fourteen- and 15-year-olds don’t understand how quickly fire and fuels can overtake them.”

Conditions are ripe for potentially fast-moving brush fires along the valley floor, fire officials said. The National Weather Service in Grand Junction reports precipitation is down roughly one-half inch since March 1, compared with recent years.

“It’s not huge, but it’s not insignificant, either,” Weather Service meteorologist Norv Larson said.

“Add wind to the equation, and you’re going to have dry, dead fuels out there.”

In Mesa County, conditions are considered favorable for large fire growth in areas below 5,500 feet, while most of western Colorado remains at low to moderate risk, said Kelly Rogers, district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.

“Anybody doing agricultural burns needs to be aware of the weather conditions for that day,” Rogers said.


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