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A bird’s eye view of the fire

Donna Daniels

Red Mountain’s north face is a waste land.

From the cockpit of a helicopter, the landscape looks blasted, seared. The firestorm that swept it June 8 left only scorched earth.

Reactions of people who have flown over that nightmare country are the same.

“It looks nuked,” they say.

Garfield County Commissioner John Martin, Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Mike Piper and Dave Silvieus of the White River National Forest, a liaison with the fire management team, flew over the remains of the Coal Seam Fire Thursday and saw firsthand the ruin left in its wake.

On Red Mountain, the loss of vegetation means a high potential for debris flows when rains come.

“This could be a very big erosion problem,” said Silvieus of the denuded north face.

Following the same path the fire took on June 8 when it ignited in South Canyon and jumped across the Colorado River and Interstate 70, the Bell A-Star helicopter flew up Mitchell Creek.

Smoke rose in dusky plumes from smoldering trees in the bottom of the drainage.

As we flew above Mitchell Creek, it became apparent the fire burned here in fits and starts, taking out one side of the drainage, then burning north and east in patches along the Flat Tops.

At 9,000 feet, the forest is a mosaic of aspen groves and smaller stands of spruce and fir. Much of the latter is dead or dying, decimated over the years by disease.

Most of what remains of the Coal Seam Fire is burning in these dead and diseased trees. A half-dozen smokes are visible from the helicopter, which skims across the treetops. In a few spots, flames lick up the trunks reaching for the lower limbs.

These are the most dangerous parts of the fire now, explains pilot Gerald Hayes.

Snags – trees weakened by fire that can fall at any time – are a dime a dozen here. They are the leading cause of firefighter injury.

Aspen trees have saved much of this area from the fire, Silvieus explains. With a higher moisture content than spruce and fir, they do not burn easily.

It’s apparent that fires burning in conifer stands stopped on the edge of aspen groves.

“If there hadn’t been as much aspen, the fire would have gotten into the spruce and would have been off to the races,” Hayes said.

If there can be a positive side to the fire, it is on the Flat Tops, where much of the dead and diseased trees have burned out.

“For the most part, the fire will be really good,” Silvieus said. “It’s burned the sicker and dead stands of trees. In two years the forest will look a lot better. And there won’t be as much threat of a bigger fire.”

The helicopter banked sharply over the cliffs above No Name canyon. There, the limestone cliffs stand in sharp contrast to the tree-clad slopes. Along the western edge of the canyon is a handful of charred trees, some smothered with red fire retardant.

Too dangerous a location for firefighters because of the precipitous cliffs, erratic winds and numerous conifer snags, Hayes said, helicopters and air tankers dropped load after load of slurry and water.

Quelling those flames prevented the wildfire from burning into No Name Creek, the source of Glenwood Springs’ drinking water.

Just west of No Name, in a green open meadow surrounded by aspen, a herd of about 20 elk drank from a stock pond.

“It’s amazing how quickly the animals move back in,” Hayes said.

Hayes cut to the west and quickly gained the top of Storm King Mountain. He pointed below to the huddle of small crosses that mark the spot where 12 of the 14 firefighters who died in the Storm King Fire of 1994 were killed.

From this birds’ eye view, the place where those men and women died appears poignantly close to the crest of the ridge, and safety.

Then Hayes ratcheted up the airspeed a notch and headed back to the helibase at Colorado Mountain College, leaving behind the blackened hillsides, heading back to the welcoming green.


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