Fire near Rifle up to 682 acres, winds pose ‘critical test’

A wildfire north of Rifle Gap Reservoir is now estimated at 682 acres and is expected to be 15 percent contained by day’s end.

However, officials are waiting to see what the next few hours will bring due to 25- to 30-mph winds that arrived this afternoon.

“This is a critical test of our current (fire) line construction,” said Jeff Berino, incident commander on the Ward Gulch Fire.

He said the fire is burning in piñon-juniper forest and there is a high probability of the fire escaping current containment lines.

“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.

However, the firefighting tactics seemed to be working so far, he said a little later this afternoon. Also, crews have been working to better fireproof a 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 this afternoon that it would be another day before he could address when the evacuations might end.

The closest home is about a quarter mile from the fire. Another 25 outbuildings also are in the area threatened by the fire.

The fire grew another 40 acres earlier today. While its size is now more than twice the estimate as of Friday evening, most of that increase is due to improved mapping rather than actual fire growth. The fire is burning on Bureau of Land Management land.

The cause of the fire 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, and one is believed to have caused a fire that sprang to life this 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 Wald Gulch Fire made a couple of water drops on that fire.

The Ward Gulch Fire caused evacuations of the Rifle Falls State Park campground, the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery, the city-owned Rifle Mountain Park rock-climbing and camping area, and the dozen homes along Highway 325 north of Rifle Gap.

About 150 firefighters are on the scene and that number is expected to increase to 200 by tonight, 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 today,” 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.

Rifle Gap Reservoir remains open, but boating is currently prohibited because helicopters are picking up water there, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife is discouraging visitations to the reservoir. It is recommending that boaters go to Harvey Gap Reservoir north of Silt instead, but notes that a 20-horsepower limit on motorized boats applies there.


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