A fire too big to fight
“It’s a disaster,” Glenwood Springs Mayor Don Vanderhoof declared after flames from a burning underground coal seam ignited a wildfire Saturday that threatened to burn down much of Glenwood Springs
“We can’t fight the fire at this point in time, it’s just too big,” said Steve Sherwood, deputy supervisor for the White River National Forest.
“We saw 200-foot flame lengths pushed by 60 mph winds. I’d estimate it walked one and a half miles in an hour to an hour and a half,” Sherwood said, describing the fire as it moved across the Glenwood Meadows property at the foot of Red Mountain Saturday afternoon.
“It started in South Canyon about two and a half to three miles up the road. A burning coal seam came up out of the ground and ignited some brush.”
He said the fire was first reported around 12:30 p.m. Saturday in South Canyon.
It remained isolated until 4 p.m., when stiff winds that had been blowing all day pushed the fire farther down South Canyon and across Interstate 70 into West Glenwood.
“The thing that was terrible today was that we had high winds. That’s what really spread it,” Vanderhoof said.
Slurry bombers dropped a few loads on the fire around 2 p.m., but increasing winds forced the pilots to land at the Grand Junction air base.
Vanderhoof said the bombers dropped one last load just before dark.
Sherwood confirmed that two air tankers were working the fire, dropping loads near the Community Center.
The toll of burned homes and other structures wasn’t available at press time, but the Post Independent confirmed that at least six homes were burned.
“Dozens of homes have burned,” Garfield County Sheriff’s spokesman Ron VanMeter said.
“It’s now at the golf course and heading up Transfer Trail onto the Flat Tops,” Sherwood said at 7:30 p.m.
As of press time Saturday night, flames had topped the most easterly ridge of Red Mountain and were burning downhill toward the city’s water plant.
Vanderhoof conferred with city staff and firefighters at the City Hall command post Saturday night.
He said a city employee reported that the new $5 million Municipal Operations Center in West Glenwood burned.
“Fire is surrounding the new $7.5 million Community Center, but it is well situated, with grass and a lot of dirt all around it,” Vanderhoof said.
“It’s going to be so sad. All the beautiful trees and firs that were up there, and all the oakbrush, the whole meadows is on fire,” he said.
A more serious concern for city officials is the threat to the water plant on Red Mountain.
“I don’t think the water system is in danger,” Vanderhoof said at 9:30 p.m. “It’s still high up on the hill. They will set up a line of defense there.”
“If we lose our water system we are in big trouble,” Vanderhoof added.
Authorities evacuated the Red Mountain neighborhood Saturday afternoon from the Colorado River to 27th Street.
Vanderhoof said the fire crested over Red Mountain just above the water plant Saturday evening.
“We can still see flames shooting back on the west side of the ridge,” Vanderhoof said.
There also was an eerie large orange glow visible north of the city, toward the Flat Tops.
Winds died down around 7 p.m., giving officials hope that this morning’s air attack would be effective.
While there were a lot of rumors floating around about which structures burned, it was still unknown late Saturday night how much destruction the Coal Seam Fire had actually caused.
According to VanMeter, structure protection was priority No. 1 through the overnight hours.
“The priority for tonight is protecting as many structures as possible while still being safe,” VanMeter said. “The big push tomorrow is to get air tankers in here.”
Rumors of burned-down structures were spreading as fast as the wildfire itself, but VanMeter could not confirm those rumors as of 11 p.m. Saturday.
But while he would not officially confirm that structures were destroyed, he did said “It would be a miracle if no structures were burned.”
“We may not know until we have sunlight,” he said. “We heard that the Storm King Peak was in really bad shape and the Chevy dealership was threatened,” he said of Two Rivers Chevrolet.
“There are lots of embers and longer lines and trails of fire. There’s still a lot of smoke and higher flames that I can see from downtown. There will be hot spots all night long, but it’s not as scary as it was this afternoon,” VanMeter said.
Information will be available today at Glenwood Springs High School, the new public information center for the fire.
VanMeter said he had no idea when closed sections of Interstate 70 would reopen. A meeting will be held early this morning to determine what course to take from here.
Vanderhoof praised the tremendous cooperation between city and county and surrounding communities and the Forest Service.
“Everybody is working together. That’s the only bright thing I can see about today,” he said Saturday evening.
“It’s tragic to Glenwood, but we’ll all buckle down together and we’ll come out together, looking fine. I’m just praising the Lord that nobody’s been hurt.”
Downtown residents stood on street corners Saturday evening and watched the flames, or hurriedly packed their pets and belongings for an evacuation, said Martha Cochran, of Palmer Avenue.
“We sat here and watched Storm King burn, and it was mild by comparison,” Cochran said of the 1994 wildfire that burned between Canyon Creek and West Glenwood and claimed the lives of 14 firefighters.
Cochran said she drove to her cabin in the Mountain Spring subdivision, high up Three Mile Creek, at 5 p.m. Saturday to retrieve some belongings. By 5:30 p.m., sheriff’s deputies were chasing cabin owners and residents out of the area. It’s unknown whether the fire spread into that area.
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The Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association is working with local businesses and organizations to celebrate the spirit of Strawberry Days with a Berry Special Weekend from June 18-20, according to a news release.