Big Fish Fire burns Trapper’s Lake Lodge, 8 cabins
The Big Fish Fire grew by 6,000 acres Friday and burned the Trappers Lake Lodge, a barn and eight cabins as it swept to the east, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Sue Froeschle. An additional 4,000 acres burned Saturday.
Other cabins related to the lodge, as well as a cluster of private cabins and the Rio Blanco Ranch, all evacuated on Thursday, were spared, she said.
Now that the 10,000-acre wildfire has moved beyond the structures, Forest Service officials are monitoring it but not actively fighting it. That approach follows a wildfire plan for the Flat Tops Wilderness written in 1995, which called for allowing fire to take its natural course.
Because of the many dead standing trees from a 50-year-old spruce beetle epidemic and rough terrain, the fire would be extremely difficult to fight anyway, Froeschle said.
The 1995 fire plan did call for protecting the lodge and cabins near Trappers Lake, but the fire exploded Friday afternoon and spread far more quickly than firefighters expected.
“Unfortunately we experienced high winds early in the day, and we had to pull the engines and crews off. The structures were not fully protected, and as a consequence, some were destroyed,” she said.
In other cases, cabin owners created a defensible space around their structures, and the wildfire “just passed over” as it moved through the area.
It burned within a quarter mile of the Rio Blanco Ranch before turning south toward the lake. The ranch is now serving as the incident command center for the fire.
The fire also passed through the Trappers Lake Campground, but did little damage, Froeschle said.
Trappers Lake, 38 miles east of Meeker and 30 miles due north of Glenwood Springs, is a focal point of the Flat Tops Wilderness and the White River Valley. The mile-long lake is ringed by steep mountainsides unique to Flat Tops geology.
It’s a popular area for anglers, canoeists, hikers and hunters. While it is most easily accessed from the White River Valley, it is actually in the extreme northeast corner of Garfield County.
The fire started July 18 with a lightning strike near Big Fish Lake, 2.5 miles west of Trappers Lake, but didn’t start to spread until this week. On Monday, it grew to 50 acres, and on Wednesday it grew from 125 acres to 300 acres. By noon on Thursday, it doubled to 600 acres, and by nightfall more than doubled again, reaching 1,500 acres.
“The biggest run was between Thursday night and Friday night,” Froeschle said.
So while 170 firefighters were on the scene working to protect the Trappers Lake structures in advance of the fire, the spread on Friday caught them with some work not yet done.
Now the fire is working its way deeper into the Flat Tops Wilderness. Natural barriers, including lakes and the scenic China Wall, a long escarpment of limestone, may halt the spread of the fire. But the fire probably won’t go out unless the area receives heavy rains, or until snow falls.
“It’s still burning, and the fuel load is extremely heavy. There are some natural barriers, but it’s not going to die off anytime soon,” Froeschle said.
Forest Service officials closed 14 trails in the area Friday, and were checking on horses grazing in the area.
But as of Saturday afternoon, no injuries or deaths had occurred on the fire, Froeschle said.
Smoke has been visible along the Interstate 70 corridor from Vail to Glenwood Springs. That smoke is very dense because a spruce beetle epidemic in the 1940s and 1950s killed thousands of trees in the area, and the dead trees are feeding the fire. The accumulation of fuels ranges from 40 to 100 tons per acre and is four or five times denser than what is normally found in local forests, fire officials said.
“This fire is going to be a real benefit for the overall health of the Flat Tops,” said Wettstein. “It’s drastically reducing the fuel load of the area.”
Monitoring the fire will be a unique 10-person “fire use management team,” one of only three in the country, said Wettstein. When the fire first started, he said, the team created models for the management implementation plan now being used, Wettstein said.
“One of the advantages of these kinds of fire is we aren’t putting people in harms way nearly as much as on a full-suppression show,” said Wettstein.
Area forests are primed to burn after five years of below-normal precipitation and, this year, by the worst drought on record in Colorado.
Cliff Thompson of the Vail Daily contributed to this report.
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