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Coal Seam sequel possible

Post Independent/Kara K. Pearson
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The slopes above Glenwood Springs may be green, but don’t let that fool you. Despite recent rain, fire conditions are as severe now as they were on June 8, 2002, when the Coal Seam Fire devastated more than 12,000 acres in and around Glenwood Springs.The message from area fire officials: Be prepared. Yesterday, the energy release component, or ERC, index, which reflects the contribution of live and dead wildfire fuel to potential fire intensity, was 82 for oak brush. On June 8, 2002, the ERC index was 83, said White River National Forest spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo. “The Coal Seam burn is green and dry again,” said Glenwood Fire Chief Mike Piper. The driest area of town, he said, is probably northern Glenwood, which receives the most sun. “This same green was here four years ago, but was extremely dry,” he said. “All those conditions (are) almost identical to four years ago.”Ross Wilmore, Fire Management Officer for public land east of Glenwood, said grasses pose a significant fire threat, and the scar that the Coal Seam Fire left on Glenwood’s hillsides still has the potential to burn.

But, “that fire scar there is not going to burn with the same kind of intensity as the Coal Seam because the gambel oak is a lot younger,” he said, adding that the “leaf litter” beneath those scrubby oak trees has not accumulated to be as flammable as litter beneath mature oak stands. As gambel oak leaves fall, they accumulate, dry out and curl, becoming fluffy and flammable. But a large quantity is needed for it to burn intensely, he said. “Glenwood is in a lot better shape than it was before 1994 (the year of the Storm King Fire),” he said. “There’s places around Glenwood Springs, of course, we’re still concerned about. The piñon-juniper is pretty dry. Conditions are beginning to line up for a large fire someplace.”Indeed, the entire city is at risk for wildfire this year, Piper said. The wind-driven fires pose a threat even to those who have cleared a “defensible space” between their homes and nearby dry trees, Piper said. A wind-driven wildfire is no match for human preparation, he said.

The potential for such fires here should encourage Glenwood residents think about what they’d do if they had to evacuate, he said, including making sure pets, important documents and other essentials can be gathered quickly if a fire breaks out. Mayor Bruce Christensen said he believes Glenwood residents are acutely aware of the danger wildfires pose to the city, and encouraged them to prepare by removing brush from around their homes and being careful with fire. Though he said he’s confident in local fire fighting agencies’ ability to jump into action to fight wildfires, he questioned the readiness of federal agencies. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service “resources have somewhat dwindled,” he said. “I am concerned the federal level may not be there.”Locally, federal fire fighting agencies are fully staffed, said White River National Forest spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo. “We will bring on extra crews if we need to,” she said. But statewide, federal firefighting resources are much different than they were in 2002, when the Forest Service faced the devastation of the Hayman (Front Range) and Missionary Ridge (Durango area) fires, which together burned hundreds of thousands of acres.



“In 2002, we had many more large (four-engine) air tankers,” said Larry Helmerick, fire information officer for the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Coordination Center. Since then, he said, federal agencies have begun to use a variety of tools, including helicopters, single-engine air tankers and larger air tankers. Five 20-person Hotshot crews are available for Colorado fires, he said, in addition to hundreds of lesser-trained firefighters. He insisted the agency is ready, citing two fires at Mesa Verde National Park on Tuesday, which were doused with slurry from a four-engine P-3 air tanker. “As far as comparing 2002 to 2006, it’s a different picture because of how we’re managing resources,” Helmerick said. “I’m comfortable. If we have a megafire like Hayman or Missionary Ridge, we’ll call in (resources) from across the nation. We’re as ready as we can be.”Contact Bobby Magill: 945-8515, ext. 520bmagill@postindependent.com


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