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Fire spread slowing, but wind shift expected

Heather McGregor

The Coal Seam Fire gained about 250 acres on the Flat Tops Thursday, and the 11,892-acre wildfire is now 30 percent contained.

But a shift in wind direction expected on Saturday could test the effectiveness of the week’s firefighting efforts, said fire management team spokesman Justin Dombrowski.

“On Friday, it will be hotter, drier, and we’ll have about the same winds as we’ve had for the past three days,” Dombrowski said in a Thursday evening briefing.

“But on Saturday, there’s a potential for a Red Flag warning,” he said, the same warning in effect last Saturday when the Coal Seam Fire blew up in South Canyon.

“It will be one of our first true tests,” Dombrowski said. “The chance of a dramatic shift is possible.”

For the past few days, the stronger afternoon winds that stimulate fire activity have come directly from the west. But winds are expected to shift and come from the northwest Saturday, pushing the fire back to the south.

Dombrowski said winds aren’t expected to blow any stronger than in recent days, but the directional change could test the fire lines crews have been building around Glenwood Springs.

And the more northerly reaches of the fire, burning across the headwaters of Mitchell and Oasis creeks, have not yet been reached by ground crews.

“We are not completely out of the woods yet,” said Dombrowski.

He advised residents to keep their bags packed and stay aware of fire activity from noon to 7 p.m. each day.

Otherwise, Dombrowski’s briefing contained good news.

On Thursday, 350 firefighters were out on the lines of the fire, building fire lines to contain most of the burned area south of the Colorado River, and more of the area north of the river.

A fifth Hot Shot crew arrived Thursday and was expected to start work this morning.

In addition, a third large helicopter arrived on the scene. It can carry nine firefighters at a time, ferrying them close to portions of the fire perimeter that have, until now, required a four-hour hike.

“This will keep them strong for the work they have to do,” Dombrowski said.

Success along the southern portion of the fire led fire commander Steve Hart to lift the evacuation order for Mountain Springs Ranch and upper Three Mile Creek.

However, as with all other lifted evacuation orders, residents were advised to check on things at home but stay elsewhere, or stay well aware of changing weather and advancing smoke in the afternoons and be prepared to bolt.

The total firefighting resources as of Friday are five Hot Shot crews and 11 other crews of 20 firefighters each, 41 fire engines, seven bulldozers and three large helicopters. Nearly 900 people are involved in the operation.

Firefighting costs topped $2 million Thursday. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has offered to pay 75 percent of the costs. The remainder must be paid by state and local governments.

Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri and state Rep. Gregg Rippy took a flight around the perimeter of the fire Thursday.

They reported seeing yellow-shirted firefighters on every knoll of the perimeter.

“That gave me a great sense of comfort,” Rippy said.

And they reported that in contrast to the scorched landscape of South Canyon and Wulfsohn Ranch, the wildfire has less of an appetite for high country vegetation.

“I was pleased with what I saw on the Flat Tops,” Dalessandri said. “I thought we’d have a lot of devastation, but actually it was a lot of one and two-acre spot fires. The fire burned in some conifers, then would jump a meadow.”

Dombrowski noted that aspen groves have burned, but their high moisture content slows the fire down.

Dombrowski noted that once the fire is contained, firefighters will them move to control it. While the fire line is narrow now, firefighters will go back and make it much wider by digging out and dousing hot spots and removing more vegetation, so a wind-born ember couldn’t be blown across.

Burning could still occur inside the perimeter of a controlled wildfire, but won’t be able to spread, he said.


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