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Flat Tops fires advance under watchful eyes of firefighters

Dennis Webb

Recent winds have fanned the flames of two wilderness fires in the Flat Tops, resulting in several hundred acres of newly burned areas.

However, forest users continue to be able to access some reopened roads, campgrounds and trails, including the road to Trappers Lake.

The Big Fish and Lost Lake fires have been active since Monday, with large smoke columns being created by heavy burning in the Skinny Fish and Paradise Creek drainages.

The Big Fish Fire had reached 15,500 acres and the Lost Lakes Fire grew to 5,000 acres by Tuesday evening, and the Big Fish Fire added another 300 acres Wednesday following unusual early-morning winds.

Officials now project that Big Fish will ultimately grow to about 18,800 acres, and the Lost Lakes Fire to 15,000 acres.

That would still be well within the 145,000-acre fire use area in which fires are being allowed to burn in the Flat Tops.

Under a 1995 plan, certain fires are not being fought in the Flat Tops so that heavy fuel loads can be reduced and fire can play its natural ecological role.

In this approach, efforts are concentrated on protecting any structures.

While such efforts have succeeded in some cases, crews were unable to implement structure protections in time in the Trappers Lake area, where the Big Fish Fire burned a historic lodge and eight other buildings Aug. 16.

Eleven structures are still threatened by the fires. Ron Hodgson, a fire information officer, said the Ripple Creek Ranch area, which includes a lodge, is an area of concern, as is a cabin on Lynx Creek above the Rio Blanco Ranch, due to some spot fire activity.

Fire engines and structure protections are in place in these areas. Hodgson said Rio Blanco Ranch is “quite secure.” The fire already has burned through the ranch area but crews were able to keep the ranch from burning.

Crews have used water drops from a helicopter where necessary to keep the fires from heating up too much.

“We’re not trying to stop it,” Hodgson said of the burning, “but we want to slow it down.”

In what he said is “a strange kind of fire management,” the goal is to keep the fires burning in intended areas until the end of the fire season, but not burning too fast.

Despite the loss of Trappers Lake Lodge, the business there is operating, serving meals and continuing to rent some cabins. The road to Trappers Lake reopened Saturday, and “lots of people traveled up there” to see the aftermath of the fire, Hodgson said.

The Himes Peak and Trappers Lake campgrounds also have reopened, along with some trails in the area. The Trappers Lake campground will close again Sept. 3 for a previously planned bridge replacement.

Crews continue to cut down burnt trees to make trails safe for visitors. These trees, stripped by the fires and weakened in their root systems, can fall silently and without warning.

“It’s very important that people stay out of the burned area except on the trails that are reopened,” Hodgson said.

While a little rain may arrive Friday, little reduction in fire activity in the Flat Tops is anticipated for some time, and people need to pay attention to closures “so they don’t find themselves trapped up there somewhere,” he said.

Information on closures can be obtained at http://www.whiterivervalley.com/ fire.

As of Tuesday, the fires had cost $895,000 to manage and 56 personnel were assigned to them, including six engine crews.


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