Gusts fuel fire that threatens mobile homes, burns junkyard building

Grand Junction firefighters battle a blaze in an abandoned building belonging to Bill’s Body shop beside the Fifth Street viaduct. The wind-driven fire started on an island in the Colorado River, jumped the river channel, and consumed the building.

Winds that roared through the Grand Valley with gusts of up to 60 mph fanned flames that reached up about 80 feet high at times Sunday night, scorching a 15-acre swath of an island in the Colorado River about a half-mile south of the Riverside neighborhood.

Meanwhile, firefighters in other parts of the valley raced about dousing smaller fires and electricians mended downed power lines as visibility decreased in the late afternoon, thanks to a mixture of smoke from the fires and dust kicked up by the wind.

Residents of about 10 mobilehomes were evacuated about 6:30 p.m. when embers from the massive fire jumped the river. The flames crossed a bike path and railroad tracks and burned down an abandoned building in a salvage yard at Bill’s Body Shop. The shop is nearly underneath the southbound off-ramp of the Riverside Parkway, which runs into Fifth Street.

The mobile home residents were allowed to return about three hours later.

“A cop came to our door and said we would have to evacuate,” said Debbie Twiss, who lives with her husband, Terry, in the park. “I had no idea what was happening, but once we got outside we could smell the smoke and see the fire.”

Twiss said she had time only to grab her favorite items and a few books; the couple also let their cat out.

Other residents of the lower downtown Grand Junction area waited in their vehicles at the top of the hill south of the river as firefighters doused the building and monitored the fire as it continued to smolder in cottonwood trees and tamarisk bushes downriver.

Some people living in a makeshift homeless camp near the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers were evacuated from their tents.

Officials attributed the blaze to a campfire on the island, which can lately be accessed on foot because of low water levels, said spokesman Mike Page of the Grand Junction Fire Department.

Firefighters were alerted to the blaze just before 5 p.m., but high winds soon whipped up the fire, spreading it east and sending flames shooting into the sky. 

Mesa State College student Amanda Harris and some friends could see and smell the smoke from campus and, along with about 35 others, stopped vehicles in the area to watch the surreal scene, which contrasted red flames against a deepening brown sky. At one point, police closed the Riverside Parkway as flames neared the road.

“I haven’t seen a storm this bad since I’ve been here,” Harris said, as blasting winds created eerie, high-pitched screams among the large nearby power lines.

Cory Wolf and Joe Springer watched as firefighters raced to get ahead of the flames and used a pump to extract water from the river.

“It moved so quick they couldn’t move the pump fast enough to control the fire,” Wolf said.

Firefighters worked into the night keeping an eye on hot spots and will be in the area today to investigate the damage.

“We were glad (the fire) didn’t switch directions on us,” Page said.

About 20 firefighters, including Bureau of Land Management Crews, and law enforcement from around the valley responded to the scene.

The Grand Valley area was under a high wind warning, with the National Weather Service warning of winds of 25-40 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph.

While the fire raged and the wind howled, police officers were dispatched to other calls, including a series of burglar-alarm activations, including one at an Alpine Bank branch. A number of power poles were also blown over. 

Xcel Energy workers worked through the night, attempting to fix downed power lines, according to scanner reports.


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