Rifle blaze illustrates lingering fire season

An air tanker drops slurry on a fire burning about 15 miles north of Rifle and to the east of Colorado Highway 13.

A second significant area wildfire in less than two weeks is serving as a reminder that the danger for such blazes in western Colorado has yet to come to an end this year.

“We’re still in fire season, unfortunately,” said Bill Kight, spokesman for the White River National Forest.

Neither Kight nor David Boyd, a Bureau of Land Management spokesman for northwest Colorado, could remember the last time the local wildfire danger has lingered so late into the year.

“It’s quite unusual,” Boyd said.

What’s being called the Highway 13 Fire broke out Wednesday afternoon along the eastern edge of Colorado Highway 13 about 15 miles north of Rifle. Strong winds caused it to expand to 991 acres in size by that evening and race east to the top of the Grand Hogback ridge, which runs parallels to the highway roughly from Rifle to Meeker.

A combination of heavy firefighting efforts and more favorable terrain helped keep the fire from spreading much further Thursday. With winds sometimes exceeding 25 mph out of the west, the ridge served as a windbreak that helped keep it from heading down the ridge’s eastern side, as did the fact that fire spreads less readily downhill than uphill.

A heavy air tanker, three heavy helicopters and two single-engine air tankers were being used to attack the fire Thursday, and eight smokejumpers also were among the roughly 150 firefighters on the scene.

The fire acreage estimate is nearly twice that given by officials a day earlier. That’s due not to fire growth but to the fact that firefighters were able to do more accurate mapping of the rough terrain.

The cause of the fire remains undetermined but it’s thought to have been human-related because it started right along the highway, Boyd said. He said any number of things could have sparked the fire in such dry conditions.

On Sept. 20, the Middle Elk Fire was started by an abandoned campfire in higher-elevation forest north of New Castle, eventually growing to 257 acres. While it’s not out, Kight said it has remained pretty quiet so far this week, and may not have seen the kind of winds like those that hit north of Rifle.

He said the cooler temperatures and shorter days that fall brings should help. But if the weather continues to be dry, a big wind could cause the fire to flare up again, he said.

This summer, much of western Colorado got something of a respite from what has been a serious drought year due to monsoonal rains. But Travis Booth, a meteorologist intern for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said conditions have been quite dry over the last month, as indicated by measurements at local airports.

Rifle’s precipitation since Sept. 1 is less than half an inch, compared to nearly 1.7 inches in a normal year for that period. Grand Junction’s for the same period also is below a half-inch, compared to 1.31 inches on average.

The region never caught up moisture-wise this year, following exceedingly low snowfall. Year to date, Rifle has received a little more than 6 inches of precipitation, compared to 10.65 in a normal year. Grand Junction’s total for the year so far is about 3 inches, less than half the 7.16 inches in a normal year.

“Even though we had some of the moisture in the summer, it had a short-term effect rather than a long-term effect, and once things dried out again here in the fall, it led to the potential for fires once again,” Booth said.

While cooler temperatures are in store this weekend, there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance for decent precipitation until possibly late next week, Booth said.

The dry winter and spring this year took its toll even on large-diameter, heavy fuels that take longer to dry out. Those fuels also take longer to regain their moisture, leaving them fire-prone even after summer rains.

With fall arriving, light fuels also are curing out, Boyd said, and having a succession of days without moisture and with warm winds brings back the high fire danger. This week’s fire shows the region is “still ready to burn,” said Boyd.

The big-game rifle hunting season in western Colorado starts Oct. 13. White River National Forest officials have been concerned after seeing a high number of unattended campfires last month, and they fear the possibility of more wildfires with lots of hunters heading to the hills.

Kight said information coming from the public has helped produce strong leads about who may have caused the Middle Elk Fire. The fire remains under investigation.

The area of that fire has been closed to the public, including hunters. But Kight noted that most of the game management unit of which the fire area is a part continues to remain accessible to hunters, contrary to what a number of concerned hunters who have contacted him had heard.

Kight said while local residents were careful to heed warnings about the fire danger earlier this year, one concern is that hunters coming from out of state might be less aware of the danger and less careful in their actions.

Management of the Highway 13 Fire transitioned Wednesday night from a local firefighting agency to the federal Upper Colorado Interagency Fire Management’s Central Zone, based in Rifle.

Some homes are located on both sides of the Grand Hogback near the fire, and it came within about 300 yards of one just after first breaking out. Authorities are actively trying to suppress the fire despite the rugged terrain, Boyd said. However, as of Thursday evening it remained just 5 percent contained.

No structures have been burned or evacuated due to the fire.


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