A Rio Blanco County fire that expanded from five acres to more than 2,500 acres in a matter of days is achieving the goals of fire managers in reducing overgrown vegetation and improving habitat.

The Hunt Fire about 26 miles southwest of Meeker was ignited Thursday by lightning on Bureau of Land Management land. It was five acres in size early Friday but by late that day had grown to more than 1,000 acres because of strong, erratic winds. It continued to expand over the weekend, although the site did receive rain Sunday, and had reached 2,578 acres in size as of mid-day Monday.

Fire spokeswoman Maribeth Pecotte said the blaze is achieving managers' objectives of burning in a mosaic pattern, creating a more diverse landscape that benefits wildlife such as big game, including by encouraging growth of forage.

"Within that almost 2,600 acres it's not completely burned. It hasn't blackened everything. There's a lot of patches of forest or woodlands area mixed with burned areas in between," she said.

The fire is burning in remote terrain in ridges and valleys north of the Roan Plateau. It started in thick brush and downed trees where it was unsafe for firefighters to directly engage it, authorities say.

The area also is within a BLM area that the White River Field Office fire management plan had designated as appropriate for prescribed burns and vegetation treatment in mountain shrubs and sagebrush to achieve diversity in the type and age of vegetation, Pecotte said. The office also went through a separate environmental process allowing for the use of fires from unplanned ignitions such as lightning strikes for resource benefits, she said.

Fire crews continue to work to keep the fire in check, however. More than 100 personnel and two helicopters are on the scene. They have worked to protect several isolated historic cabins and some oil and gas wells. Pecotte said the goal also is to keep it south of a natural gas pipeline, north of the Rio Blanco/Garfield County line, and between Hunter Creek and West Willow creeks.

Crews were preparing Monday for a possible burnout operation on the fire's south side to help keep it contained there.

The fire area has been closed to the public.

Pecotte said landowners in the area have voiced favorable views about the benefits of the fire. A news release from fire managers Monday cited support for it from Sally Lou Johnson, a landowner adjacent to the fire with a BLM grazing allotment in the burned area.

"The brush and trees in that area are so overgrown, it's difficult to get animals in and out, and the junipers are so thick that hardly any grass grows under them," Johnson said in the release.

Pecotte said firefighters were able to protect livestock troughs from being burned.

"They are protecting the assets and the values that do exist out there and preventing damage to facilities and infrastructure while allowing fire to burn for resource benefits," she said.

Officials also have been managing rather than trying to extinguish the 265-acre Middle Mamm Fire on national forest land south of Rifle. It was started by lightning in late July and is being managed for ecosystem benefits.

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