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Flat Tops firefighters now have bigger fish to fry

Dennis Webb

A heavy plume of smoke was visible from the Roaring Fork Valley Thursday after a fire near Trapper’s Lake in the Flat Tops grew by nearly 1,400 acres, forcing evacuations of backcountry structures.

Sue Froeschle, spokesperson for the White River National Forest, said the fire had grown from 125 to 1,500 acres and was threatening some 50 structures.

Trapper’s Lake Lodge and Campground and the Himes Peak Campground on the forest were evacuated.

The fire had approached within a quarter mile of the Rio Blanco Ranch, a privately owned resort, and within a mile of the Trapper’s Lake Lodge, said Froeschle.

As recently as Thursday morning, the Big Fish Fire, named for a lake west of Trapper’s Lake where it first began, was not considered a serious threat. The WRNF has not been actively fighting the fire, which was burning in an area designated for letting fire play a natural role.

Just Thursday morning, a dispatcher at the Grand Junction Air Center, which provides air support to Western Slope firefighters, had said the fire was burning through blown-down trees and other dead fuel, which was precisely the goal being sought.

“At this time, in terms of a resource standpoint, it’s not doing anything but good,” said Kevin Conran.

That changed with the fire’s rapid growth Thursday afternoon.

Garfield County Undersheriff Jim Sears said he had been told mid-afternoon that the fire was days away from threatening the Trapper’s Lake area. An hour later, he was driving there after the evacuations were ordered.

Said Froeschle, “Now that it’s going near structures and it’s rapidly moving, they are going to be bringing in some additional firefighters.

“There’s a tremendous fuel load, and I think it’s working it’s way right through that.”

The fire is burning in heavy downed spruce stands and dead spruce trees that were killed by heavy winds that hit the area in the 1940s and `50s, she said.

She said the fuel amounts to about 40 to 60 tons an acre. “That’s a lot of fuel,” she said.

The fire is located about 30 miles north of Glenwood Springs and 38 miles east of Meeker, within Garfield County but near the Rio Blanco County line.

It had been managed by the WRNF, but with its growth, management was transferred to a fire use management team, said Froeschle.

When a fire isn’t actively fought, trigger points are established so action can be taken if it becomes a threat. In this case, Froeschle said, a plan to protect structures from fires is being followed.

“They had a plan in place if it did go in that direction, and they have begun implementation,” she said.

Structure protection efforts are in place at Rio Blanco Ranch and will be in place today at Trapper’s Lake Lodge.

Froeschle said some of the structure protection consists of bringing in hoses and watering things down. While she was unsure of other treatments, she said they could involve use of retardants and clearing of brush.

The fire was begun by lightning July 18. It had remained stagnant, at about 50 acres, until this week, when its growth was encouraged by low humidity levels and high winds, said Conran.

Froeschle said she couldn’t speculate on the possibility of the Forest Service being second-guessed for its approach to the fire.

Even with the fire’s growth Thursday, Froeschle noted that no efforts are being made to suppress the fire. The only goal is to divert it around human structures.

“The objectives are to allow it to burn for resource benefit, but we will protect structures,” she said. “We believe the structure protection they’re doing would result in the fire going around those structures.”

Except for the structures now in the fire’s path, all of it is burning in an area away from inhabited areas, where forest officials consider fire to be an appropriate and beneficial part of the natural environment.

Active suppression would begin if the fire exceeds a “maximum management area” that has been established for it, Froeschle said.

No one has been injured in the fire.


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