Hidden in the hills, heroes hard at work
A crew of stonefaced firefighters, Pulaskis in hand, lined South Canyon Road Tuesday afternoon, waiting to see if the mammoth flames towering above them would make a run down the hill.
They are the hidden heroes, and although the Coal Seam fire looked somewhat innocuous from Glenwood Springs on Tuesday, fire officials insist they’re fighting a blaze that’s still very dangerous.
“It can be a very, very calm environment, but that situation can change on a dime,” said Jamie Connell, a district ranger for the White River National Forest. “People do need to know what’s going on and need to recognize that it’s not out.”
In South Canyon, two fires were burning within about a mile of each other. The mood of firefighters appeared focused and intense. As they looked up into the gathering cloud of smoke above the hills, 200-foot flames could be seen leaping from treetop to treetop, keeping each firefighter in that narrow canyon on highest alert.
“This is the time when the fire really flares up,” Connell said as she drove through an unburned section of the road, more than a mile up the South Canyon Road from Interstate 70. “This looks so green in here, it can really fool some people.”
Around 3 p.m., the winds picked up, “just like clockwork,” one firefighter said.
To fight this fire, crews are being driven along the roads that snake through the hills and canyons to the trailheads. They hike in with portable fire shelters on their belts, tools in their hands and water in their packs.
“The guys who came in on these Type I teams and Hotshot crews have very, very specialized skills,” Connell said.
Black, charred land is visible just on the south side of the South Canyon Bridge. Red paths can be seen carved from the barren ground by a backhoe – a firebreak made the day before.
As Connell drove up the steep road, smoke from ongoing fires became dense and more profuse.
Green sections that look as if they may have burned during the 1994 Storm King Fire, still young and moist, escaped the wrath of the Coal Seam Fire, Connell said.
A home stood amid the smudged remains of the fire, surrounded by a patch of green grass.
“That’s why the idea of a defensible space is so important,” Connell explained.
The fire disintegrated much of the roadside vegetation, revealing a long line of beer bottles, which could shed light on the fire’s behavior.
“They can tell fire investigators a story,” Connell said of the bottles.
The fact that they didn’t melt goes a long way toward telling investigators the speed and intensity of the blaze as it passed them over.
At 3 p.m. Tuesday, the flames started to amplify considerably. With a stronger, more constant wind, an entire stand of trees was devoured by the flames.
At the same time, firefighters took heart that the wind direction seemed to be pushing the fire back onto itself.
“These smoky areas have been dormant, but the activity has allowed it to go up a tree,” said Patrick Thiel, a Triple A Forestry firefighter out of Enterprise, Ore.
“It has climbed up a northwest-facing slope and heading toward the black. It sounds like the wind did something beneficial. It should go up into the black,” Thiel said.
The black refers to an area that’s already been burned.
“We planned to backburn there tomorrow morning, but this might help us,” he said.
Another Triple A crew member, Lee Dowdle, listened as orders came over his radio.
“We don’t move until we’re told,” he said.
After hearing those orders, he said, “We’re going down the road to keep slot fires from starting.”
A slot fire, he explained, is a fire that jumps from one area to another. In this case, that would mean a fire that jumped from the east side to the west side of South Canyon Road.
“If the ground is warm enough and humidity is low, those fires can start,” Thiel explained. “We still have the threat of the fire coming around and threatening us.”
The upper crews who were trying to build fire breaks were not very far from the road, but neither were the towering flames.
“Because of the conditions right now, the fire is really increasing,” Thiel said.
Just before 3 p.m., a helicopter came in and dropped “cubies,” packages of drinking water shaped like blocks.
“Because of the increased behavior up there, they called for the water,” Thiel said.
Connell said that since it was four days since the fire started, many communication problems that occur at the beginning of such a situation have been solved.
“A lot of the things that you really struggle with at the beginning of a fire, we’ve got that all lined out,” she said.
Just above the South Canyon Dump, another fire looked to be swelling.
“The fire does generally – at the heat of the day – burn uphill, but when it gets going, it can display a number of different behaviors,” Connell said.
As people spoke on the radio, she explained that “They check, check, check, check, check on one another. They’re in constant communication with different crews.
“The radio protocol is really quite well-developed,” she explained.
The most important piece of information citizens should know about the Coal Seam fire, Connell said, is that it’s still burning and it’s still extremely dangerous.
“We encourage people to use caution because there’s still a lot of activity. Even though it might seem or feel like it’s over, until the incident commander feels the fire is out, it’s not out,” she added.
White River National Forest district ranger Cal Wettstein concurred. “The fire’s not out, but the one thing I’ve seen happening out here is the safety procedures are paramount.”
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