Coal Seam Fire, one year later |

Coal Seam Fire, one year later

One year ago Sunday, on June 8, 2002, a spark from an underground coal seam burning for decades in South Canyon ignited the dry oakbrush clustered around the spot where the coal seam hit the surface.

Meanwhile, extremely stiff winds pushed across western Colorado, gusting up to 40 and 50 mph.

The land was already parched from a winter with very little snow, and a dry spring with relentless sun and hot winds. Conditions for a conflagration were perfect.

Although Glenwood firefighters called for a federal helicopter to drop buckets of water on the blaze as it spread in South Canyon, the winds gave the blaze a strong advantage. Within a few hours, the wildfire roared down South Canyon, turned right at the Colorado River and headed straight for Glenwood Springs.

Just west of West Glenwood, the winds fanned the fire into a two-headed monster when the burning cinders blew across the railroad tracks, the river and four lanes of interstate highway to ignite dry oakbrush on the north side.

Fire spread up Storm King Mountain, up Mitchell Creek and stared down the westernmost neighborhoods of West Glenwood. At the same time, the fire barreled across Glenwood Meadows and Red Mountain.

Glenwood Springs police officers raced door to door, evacuating hundreds of West Glenwood and Red Mountain residents while the smoke grew so thick they could barely see.

Firefighters from Glenwood Springs and neighboring fire districts went into burning neighborhoods and drew lines. They would not let the fire spread over the lines.

They fought hard, and as the wind eased off at sunset, they gained the upper hand.

The fire terrified the town, but first responders bravely did the jobs they are trained for and volunteers turned out by the dozens to help displaced residents.

Over the next few days, the fire threatened Glenwood Springs and No Name, but stayed in the backcountry. Gradually, evacuated residents toured burned neighborhoods. Most came back relieved, but 29 households lost everything.

Federal firefighters set up a huge fire camp at Two Rivers Park and carved a ring of unburnable ground around both parts of the 12,000-acre fire, although it wasn’t officially declared out until midwinter.

The Coal Seam Fire experience marked our entire year. The results – residents displaced for days, the blackened view of Red Mountain, the loss of homes, and the mudslides – stuck in our minds for months.

Today and Sunday, the Post Independent marks the one-year anniversary of the Coal Seam Fire with a series of stories.

In today’s edition, you’ll read how frontline firefighters cope with the trauma, what volunteers and emergency workers have learned from the fire, and the outlook for wildfire danger in 2003.

On Sunday, you’ll read about the effectiveness of efforts to revegetate the burned area and control erosion, catch up with some of the people who lost their homes in the fire, and visit Rich Kolecki, the manager of the fish hatchery up Mitchell Creek.

Read and remember.

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