Residents near fire in Rifle area permitted to return to homes
Post Independent Staff
RIFLE — When the news came, they didn’t hesitate: About 25 people who had previously been told to evacuate along Colo. Highway 325 north of Grass Valley Road burst into applause Sunday afternoon when they were told they could return to their homes.
The announcement came during an interagency briefing at the Rifle fire station about the Ward Gulch Fire, which has been burning about one-third of a mile west of Highway 325 and about a mile and a half south of the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery since it erupted Friday afternoon.
Highway 325 north of Grass Valley Road is still closed to the general public, as are Rifle Mountain Park and Rifle Falls State Park.
The fire is now about 60 percent contained, and the most detailed aerial mapping since the fire started showed it burning across 485 acres on Sunday, said Pat Thrasher, chief fire information officer.
“We made fantastic progress from 24 hours ago,” said Jeff Berino, incident commander for the fire.
He said fire officials are aiming for 100 percent containment by Wednesday, and that so far the cost to fight the blaze is about $1 million.
A storm passed through the area Sunday morning with light rain, which didn’t help much other than to cool temperatures and raise humidity slightly, Thrasher said. Berino said the storm also generated about 50 lightning strikes in the area, one of which started a new fire just to the west of the Ward Gulch Fire. Helicopters with buckets holding up to 800 gallons of water were immediately diverted to that fire, which had not grown since.
Some residents remained cautious about returning to their homes and asked how sure officials are that it is safe.
“We would not allow you to go back in there if we didn’t have a very good comfort level that it’s going to be OK,” Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said.
But, he added, “Be prepared for that possibility, that you may have to evacuate again.”
“Don’t get complacent,” Berino said, “be ready, especially for the next 48 hours.”
One spot that has officials concerned is on the north side of the fire line, where it is “slopping over” into a very steep gully with difficult terrain. Berino said the Hot Shot crews on the scene — “the best of the best” — would be working that area Sunday night into Monday to try to ensure that the fire doesn’t burn down the gully toward Highway 325. The gully intersects the valley across the highway from the entrance to Rifle Falls State Park.
In all, about 300 people are now battling the blaze. No fixed wing aircraft other than a spotter plane worked the fire on Sunday, Berino said, but three helicopters were still dumping water on the blaze. If containment goals are reached, he said some of the resources working on the fire may be diverted to other fires around the region beginning Wednesday.
Officials pointed out that “containment” does not mean the fire is out; it means they have formed a line that “contains” it. Once a fire is fully contained, officials then begin to talk about the percentage of the fire that has been put out.
“This will not be completely out for quite some time,” Berino said. “It could be weeks, it could be months.”
Vallario also noted that it is early in Colorado’s fire season.
“We have a long way to go,” he said. “Things get hotter and drier and windier. … I hate to say this, but we are due for a major fire in Garfield County. It’s been too long since we’ve had one.”
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A crew from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center last week cut disks of wood from trees downed by a powerful avalanche that thundered off Garrett Peak in March 2019. The samples will aid research by dendrochronologists into the epic avalanche cycle.