Rifle barn blaze raises firefighting questions
As investigators work to determine the cause of a fire that destroyed a large barn east of Rifle last week, several neighbors are questioning why responders were unable to tap into the irrigation system when they arrived on the scene.
Crews arrived at 0258 Garfield County Road 223 shortly after the call came in at approximately 2:05 p.m. By the time the first engines arrived at the barn, most of the building was engulfed in flames, said Rob Jones, Colorado River Fire Protection District operations chief.
“There was nothing to save before we ever got there,” he said.
Using a basic formula and rough calculations, Jones said he determined crews would need 2,000-2,500 gallons of water per minute to overcome the BTUs produced by the fire.
With the engines capable of holding only 1,000 gallons of water and no fire hydrants anywhere, more water was needed. Tender trucks capable of holding 2,000 gallons of water were called in from Grand Valley Fire Protection District and Glenwood Springs Fire Department. The trucks dumped the water into two portable tanks before returning to a hydrant to refill.
“We never did run out of water,” Jones said.
Neighbors on the scene at the time challenged that assertion and questioned why the department did not have the equipment necessary to draw from the local agricultural water supply.
“In this rural area everyone has irrigation systems and the fire department was unable to connect to our irrigation system,” said Cody Christopher, who ran his hay operation out of the barn. Christopher’s mother, Marlene, owns the barn and the land, according to records from the Garfield County Assessor.
Jones confirmed that the engines were unable to connect to the irrigation system, but that amount of water alone would not have been enough to fight the fire, he said. The engines do have the capability of drawing from bodies of water, such as ponds and creeks, and can typically do so faster than from an irrigation system.
Christopher said he had a 6-inch irrigation riser in the middle of the property capable of producing 400 gallons per minute. While it would not have been enough alone, it would have provided and immediate and constant supply of water had it been tapped into, he said. He and several neighbors eventually did connect their own hoses to the irrigation system providing additional water at the time.
Neighbor John Stewart, who helped Christopher move some equipment away from the barn before the flames became too big, said he believes responders could have saved part of the structure, particularly an apartment attached to the south side of the barn, had they responded more quickly.
The apartment was already on fire when crews arrived on the scene, said Jones, who added that he was not going to put any of the responders in harms way. As for why the responders were incapable of connecting to the irrigation supply, Jones said, “I think the big thing for us is we are able to draft out of a water supply and we don’t go in and hook up to somebody’s private sprinkler system.”
CRFPD is in the process of equipping each engine with the equipment necessary for drawing water from similar irrigation systems.
For Christopher, the complete loss of the barn and the equipment inside means he is running a “shoestring operation,” he said. Luckily some neighbors and fellow farmers have pitched in and offered their equipment for the time being.
The fire appears to be accidental, but CRFPD is waiting for the insurance company to weigh in before making an official finding, said Orrin Moon, acting prevention division chief and fire marshal.
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