Fire forces evacuations north of Rifle
A wildfire Friday on the eve of Father’s Day weekend forced the evacuation of campgrounds, a state fish hatchery and about a dozen homes north of Rifle.
The Ward Gulch Fire had grown to about 100 acres by early Friday evening and continued to grow rapidly. It is believed to have been caused by lightning Thursday but was fanned to life by high winds Friday. Several aircraft and dozens of firefighters were battling it by later in the day.
Rifle Falls State Park and the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery up Highway 325 were evacuated, as was Rifle Mountain Park, owned by the city of Rifle, farther to the north. The closures included the world-renowned Little Box Canyon climbing area. The sites are located in the narrow Rifle Creek Valley, which could become a fire trap if the blaze drops into it from the higher elevation where it is burning.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Mike Porras said winds were driving the fire more to the north, in which case it would avoid the hatchery area, but that could change if the wind began blowing east. He said the last he had heard, the winds had died down.
Porras said some of the campers at the falls relocated to temporary campsites at Rifle Gap Reservoir, which remained open. The fire is burning about three miles north of the reservoir.
The Rifle Correctional Center, a minimum-security state prison by the reservoir, also had not been evacuated.
An evacuation order was issued for residents on Highway 325 north of Rifle Gap Reservoir, and that stretch of highway also has been closed. Garfield County sheriff’s spokesman Walt Stowe said residents can’t be forced to leave, but most had done so even before the evacuation order was issued.
Some residents living north of the fish hatchery were advised to evacuate via national forest roads heading up into the Flat Tops rather than come down Highway 325.
The county has set up an evacuation center at the Garfield County Fairgrounds in Rifle.
“They’ve got pens for (evacuated) horses and the whole bit,” Stowe said.
Earlier Friday afternoon, a Bureau of Land Management crew out of Meeker was driving up and down 325, stopping to consult with residents about last-minute precautions that could be taken to protect their homes, such as removing nearby flammable materials.
“You don’t know, with how shifting the winds are and stuff, you just want to be safe,” said crew member Shane Pfeiffer as the firefighters left the home of Gary and Muriel Swallow.
The Swallows were watching the smoke from outside their garage with their adult sons, Kirk and Kris, who had come up from Rifle. Sprinklers were running around the perimeter of the house and on the rooftops.
The Swallows have dealt with a couple of other fire threats during their 35 years in their bucolic creekside home that they’re currently trying to sell.
Swallow pulled out an old, handwritten list of items to grab in such a scenario, such as family photos, valuables and items on his desk.
“We’re ready for it,” he said of the possibility of having to evacuate. “We’re loaded up with what we want to take out of here.”
Three single-engine air tankers, two heavy air tankers and a helicopter battled the fire Friday afternoon, and a large tanker was on order from Pueblo.
Three engines and several crews from the Upper Colorado Interagency Fire Management Unit were on the scene, as were resources from Colorado River Fire Rescue, the local fire department. Three, 20-person crews were ordered to the fire, said fire spokesperson Lee Ann Loupe.
Others fighting the blaze include the Juniper Valley regular and trails crew, composed of 30 firefighters who are inmates at the Rifle prison.
Several fires were caused by a lightning storm in the Rifle area Thursday evening, but most were limited to single trees. One sparked a blaze Thursday night that burned between 7 and 10 acres on Log Mesa in the Beaver Creek area seven miles southwest of Rifle.
That fire burned on BLM lands, and the Ward Gulch Fire also is believed to have started on BLM land.
Crews expected full containment of the Beaver Creek Fire by Friday evening. It had threatened utilities but no structures were nearby. The Associated Press reported that energy companies shut down three dozen gas wells as a precautionary measure.