Coal Seam Fire grows to 7,300 acres
The out-of-control Coal Seam Fire continued to threaten Glenwood Springs Sunday night. There were no immediate prospects for some 2,000 evacuees to return to their homes.
Speaking at a news conference at the Garfield County Courthouse Sunday evening, Sheriff Tom Dalessandri said the Glenwood Springs area is still as at-risk from the fire as it was Saturday, when the blaze consumed more than a dozen homes and structures.
“I would say it’s unpredictable. Because it’s unpredictable, it is not less of a threat at this point,” Dalessandri said.
On a more upbeat note, he indicated that the odds are high that Interstate 70, which reopened Sunday after being closed overnight, would remain open.
The Colorado Department of Transportation is committed to keeping the interstate open, he said.
It would take a major event, such as one in which smoke heavily impairs visibility, to close I-70, said Dalessandri.
“I don’t expect, in other words, to see it close again,” he said.
I-70 is open to only single-lane traffic in each direction, in order to slow down vehicles. Dalessandri said the purpose is to increase safety due to the amount of smoke and the number of motorists who are distracted by the fire.
Due to the fire’s unpredictability, Dalessandri could give no indication of when evacuated residents would be allowed to return home. He said that decision will be based on recommendations from firefighters.
At the news conference, some evacuees questioned being kept from their homes when the fire didn’t appear to be nearby. But officials said the fire could make a quick and extensive run, and suddenly overcome a neighborhood before residents knew it, so it was better to keep them away.
“It doesn’t take much for a turn of event,” said fire spokesman Justin Dombrowski. He noted that the fire is zero percent contained.
Meanwhile, Dalessandri urged people to abide by the evacuation order, saying that those who have refused to comply create a safety hazard that goes beyond themselves.
“You’re not only putting yourself at risk, you are putting the rescuers at risk,” he said.
At least three times, he said, that very thing has occurred on this fire. In one case, after rescuers finally got the resident to leave, the rescuers’ truck caught on fire as they followed the person out and the vehicle had to be extinguished by firefighters.
“It happens that fast … and it is extremely dangerous,” he said of such advances by the fire.
Firefighters and residents hoping from some kind of break from the blaze may get it today, thanks to moderating weather.
Saturday and Sunday were both hot, dry and windy, with Sunday’s winds gusting over 30 mph, and the relative humidity at a “pretty extreme” low of 5 percent, said Dombrowski.
Today, however, the highs are supposed to remain in the 70s, with the humidity level increasing. However, Tuesday’s weather is forecast to return to conditions like those over the weekend.
Type 1 team takes over
As of Sunday night, responsibility for the fire was turned over to a Type 1 interagency incident management team.
Dalessandri officially turned management of the fire over to incident commander Steve Hart of the Colorado State Forest Service in Colorado Springs. Gov. Bill Owens called Hart the “Red Adair of firefighting.”
“If anyone can put it out, he can,” Owens boasted.
Hart said he is confident the fire can be brought under control.
“The basic things we do stay the same,” he said under a sky stained orange by the latest flare-up on Red Mountain.
Any lack of confidence in the situation is blamed on the super-dry and overly mature condition of wildland forests.
“The forests are going through a cycle,” Hart said. “Mother Nature has an opportunity to burn them out, and it’s hard to work against.
“But we are confident we can keep people safe,” he said.
Other members of the Type 1 team are with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service from Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.
They have the expertise, and the clout, to call for additional aircraft and ground crews to curb the blaze, Owens said.
Aircraft on order
Six air tankers will be available, up from two on Sunday. The tankers can fly as long as winds don’t grow too fierce.
Hart said they won’t start flying until around 8 a.m. to prevent overly long work days for pilots, who are needed most in the afternoons when a fire is usually the hottest.
Darryl Queen, battalion chief for the Glenwood Springs Fire Department, said slurry lines laid by the tankers have held.
But with a 21-mile perimeter, the limited slurry loads have not led fire managers to consider that the fire is contained in any way.
One small helicopter is on the scene and three more are on order, along with three large helicopters due as soon as today.
A total of 24 hand crews are on order or requested, and some will take two to three days to arrive. Three hot shot crews are en route, and 10 more have been requested.
Fire grows to 7,300 acres
The fire began early Saturday afternoon and blew up later that afternoon to more than 2,000 acres, burning 24 homes and 14 outbuildings. No commercial buildings were destroyed. Exact addresses of affected homes have been difficult for authorities to determine and are not yet available.
By Sunday, the fire was said to have reached 7,300 acres. Some of the growth may be due to more accurate mapping. Obtaining accurate estimates of the fire size has been made difficult due to factors such as low visibility, and revised counts could show the fire to have spread to as much as 10,000 acres, said Mike Frary, a fire behavior analyst.
Saturday night, the fire showed “pretty uncommon” behavior, making major runs with flames from 100 to 200 feet high.
Much of the fire’s growth has been to the northeast, up Mitchell Creek and away from homes.
“The fire has behaved as we thought it would,” said Queen. “It’s burning back on line already established, but there is also new stuff burning.
There is no reason to think it is spreading further south. But it did make another run up Mitchell Creek. There was no way to go after that, the fire behavior is so erratic,” he added.
“West Glenwood is threatened as long as we have this erratic fire behavior. We just don’t know what is going to happen,” he added.
Political aid for firefighting
Politicians arrived in the city Sunday afternoon to assure residents that the Glenwood Springs fire is going to be hit had.
Gov. Owens said most of the 100 National Guard troops he has called for have arrived in the city.
“This is a statewide effort at this point,” he said.
The camoflauge-clad troopers replaced worn-out local law enforcement officers who had worked all night Saturday directing traffic and rousting people from bed to inform them of pending evacuations.
Owens said Colorado is dealing with six major fires, but said the Glenwood Springs fire carried the most potential for property damage. As a result, he said, it would get top priority for firefighting resources.
“It’s a very serious situation,” he said. “This fire is Colorado’s priority.”
Third District Congressman Scott McInnis praised Owens for quickly cutting through the red tape to bring in National Guard troops and more firefighting resources.
He praised local firefighters who held a line at the Robin Hood Mobile Home Park Saturday evening.
“Had that not been the case, we would have lost a lot more of West Glenwood,” McInnis said. “It was kind of nice today to punch it back.”
Sunday morning, crews successfully set a backburn designed to protect the city’s water treatment plant on Red Mountain. A dust-devil wind dropped some twigs and embers as far down as the Roaring Fork River, but crews were able to keep new fires from starting.
Frary said one difficulty in fighting the fire is the lack of roads and inaccessibility.
“We can’t get engines up to the fire,” he said.
The increased air power today may help in fighting the fire on its remote perimeters, said Frary.
A shortage of resources – both manpower and planes and other equipment – isn’t helping matters. Frary said the Coal Seam Fire is competing for resources with numerous other fires across the state and beyond.
“Everyone’s in the same boat. Other fires across the state are having the same problem,” he said.
Dalessandri said local law enforcement officials “feel like we’re ahead of the game” in terms of handling traffic control, security points and evacuations.
He said officers working Saturday night breathed heavy smoke for six or seven hours, and were in bad shape when they finally got off the fire, but were able to be sent home to recover before returning to duty.
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