Ward Gulch fire near Rifle grows to 300 acres
Post Independent Staff
RIFLE — Fire officials battling the Ward Gulch Fire near Rifle Falls State Park kept their fingers crossed Saturday afternoon that the fire lines would continue to hold as 25- to 30-mph winds buffeted the wildfire, and it appears to have worked, at least for now.
But a clearer picture of the fire — which initially was thought to be 340 acres during the day — by Saturday evening showed the fire was actually more than twice that size, at 682 acres, according to Pat Thrasher, chief information officer for the fire.
He said thick smoke on Friday and early Saturday prevented officials from getting a clear aerial view of the burn area. But later Saturday, a clearer view showed the fire at 682 acres even though it took no major runs on Saturday.
The fire is burning in a pinion-juniper (PJ) fuel area that is particularly susceptible to wind, said Jeff Berino, incident commander for the fire. He said nearly 200 firefighters would be on scene by Saturday night and that they were attempting to “put a box” around the fire with slurry drops from aircraft and ground crew attacks, which so far was working.
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But he admitted during a Saturday afternoon briefing at the Rifle fire station that the mixture of wind and fuels was a concern.
“When the wind hits that [PJ], it will run with amazing speed.”
He and other fire officials emphasized that the highest priority in fighting the fire is protecting human life, including that of the firefighters. In a worst case scenario, he said, “If that fire builds up a head of steam, we’re going to pull out.”
About 25 people living in 12 residences along Colo. Highway 325 north of the Grass Valley Road were told to evacuate late Friday afternoon due to the fire, officials said. Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery was also evacuated in advance of the flames, and that stretch of the highway remained closed Saturday afternoon.
A Red Cross evacuation center was set up at the Garfield County Fairgrounds in Rifle, but no one had used it by Saturday because displaced residents were able to stay with friends or in hotels, officials said. Meanwhile, firefighters are staging out of Rifle High School.
Ed and Barb Kreimier said they received the call to evacuate Friday on their way home from Denver. Ed said they arrived at their home of 30 years on Highway 325 and managed to pack pre-arranged valuables and a pet and leave by 4 p.m. Friday. The couple also made a return trip for more belongings early Saturday.
“In the course of 30 years … it’s a question of when, not if” fire is going to hit that area, he said.
Barb said they also had to leave their home 23 years ago because of another fire.
The couple said they have taken precautions and have certain belongings pre-packed and ready to go in case of emergency.
Others who were asked to evacuate just happened to be in the area.
The Titans of Climbing, the Coal Ridge High School climbing club, was practicing in Rifle Mountain Park on Friday, when Forest Service personnel asked them to evacuate the area.
“We watched the flames from Grass Valley Road with a group of other displaced climbers visiting the area,” said Bryan Gall, a teacher at Coal Ridge and coach of the climbing club. “The blaze was licking the ridgeline to the west of us.”
Officials said there are some cattle in the area, but they usually manage to get out by themselves. As of Saturday afternoon, there had been no reports of injuries and no structures had burned.
Residents will be allowed to return to their homes when fire officials are confident it is safe. If all goes well, that could be as early as Sunday.
Another public briefing on the fire is scheduled for 4 p.m. today at Rifle fire station, 1850 Railroad Ave.
Lightning and air strikes
Lightning from a storm that hit the area Thursday night is the cause of this and several other smaller fires, including a new fire that flared up on the east side of the Roan Plateau on Saturday. Some of the air resources were temporarily diverted from the Ward Gulch Fire to drop retardant on that fire, officials said. Smoke from it was visible from Rifle on Saturday but it remained far smaller than the Ward Gulch blaze.
The skies over Rifle on Saturday resembled a war zone, with two single-engine air tankers crossing back and forth from the Garfield County Airport, two heavy tankers flying between Grand Junction and the fire, and three helicopters, including two heavy helicopters, filling their buckets at Rifle Gap Reservoir.
Earlier in the day, a DC-10 out of Pueblo known as a VLAT (very large air tanker) dropped 20,000 gallons of slurry on the fire, an operation that cost between $30,000 and $60,000, Berino said.
A small army is fighting the blaze on the ground as well. Three 20-person hand crews and three 20-person Hotshot crews were on the fire Saturday, in addition to six fire engines and crews spread out at structures along Highway 325, Berino said.
In response to a concerned resident’s question about ground resources, Berino said, “We probably have an engine parked in your driveway.”
He said by Saturday night 150 people would be fighting the fire on the ground in addition to the structure-protection crews along the highway. Firefighters include local, regional and national assets, Berino said.
A Type III incident management team took command of the fire early Saturday, but Berino said they are right at the cusp of needing to escalate to a Type II crew because of the number of personnel on the scene. If the fire breaks containment to the east, he said additional help will be called in.
He said the fire would be considered 15 percent contained by Saturday night.
Climbing Fire danger
Fuels in the lower parts of western Colorado are drying out quickly, Berino said. While they are not as dry as they were at this time last year, on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being devoid of moisture, fuels in lower areas such as this are at about 70.
“They are starting to dry out,” he said, adding that the next four or five weeks before the beginning of the monsoons will be a critical time for wildfires in the region.
Beaver Creek fire
Before the Ward Gulch fire flared up, the Beaver Creek fire had occupied Rifle-area crews. Reported at about 8 p.m. Thursday, the fire started about 7 miles southwest of Rifle on Log Mesa and was burning in sagebrush and pinion-juniper. The fire had grown slowly to about 14.75 acres as of Saturday morning,but was considered fully contained by Saturday afternoon, officials said.
The Associated Press reported Friday afternoon that Encana Corp. had shut down 32 natural gas wells because of the wildfire. Company spokesman Doug Hock told the AP on Friday the shutdowns were just a precaution.
Garfield County officials said two wells owned by WPX Energy were also shut down, according to the AP.
— Mike Mckibben and Collin Szewczyk contributed to this report.
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“You have all demonstrated through your grit, perseverance and sheer determination to have weathered the storms that have come your way. And, goodness knows you have weathered the most unusual of storms to get to this very day…” — Yampah Mountain High School commencement speaker Diana Andrews