Ward Gulch Fire threatens Rifle fish hatchery
Firefighters in western Garfield County began Friday containing a fire south of Rifle and ended the day north of the city near Rifle Falls State Park battling a blaze that was threatening homes, had closed a highway and was burning toward a state fish hatchery.
A lightning storm that cruised through the area Thursday night is thought to have caused both fires, as well as several other smaller fires.
Residents north of Rifle Gap Reservoir and along Colo. Highway 325 were told to evacuate late Friday afternoon due to the Ward Gulch Fire, Garfield County Sheriff’s spokesman Walt Stowe said. Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery was evacuated in advance of the flames, according to Upper Colorado River Fire Interagency information officer Lee Ann Loupe.
An evacuation center was set up at the Garfield County Fairgrounds in Rifle, Stowe said.
Estimated Friday evening to be more than 100 acres and growing quickly, the fire was burning in grass, sage and juniper near structures at the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery and Rifle Mountain Park. However, Loupe said she did not believe any structures had been damaged.
The Titans of Climbing, the Coal Ridge High School climbing club, was practicing in the 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.”
A Type III incident management team was expected to take command of the fire by early Saturday. Friday afternoon, a refurbished C-130 air tanker was ordered out of Pueblo to assist in fire-suppression efforts. Meanwhile, three single-engine air tankers worked the fire, dropping retardant to protect structures and attempting to slow the fire’s growth.
Two heavy air tankers and a Type II helicopter also battled the fire Friday. Three engines and chase crews from the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit were on scene, and three Type II crews, each comprised of 20 firefighters, were ordered to the fire.
Juniper Valley regular and trails crews provided an additional 30 firefighters. Resources from Colorado River Fire Rescue are also on scene.
Authorities are encouraging citizens to avoid the area for personal safety as well as the safety of firefighters.
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 grew to about 7 to 10 acres in size, largely driven by dry fuels and strong winds until about 2 a.m. Friday.
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.
Maria Pina of Colorado River Fire Rescue said the fire was located about a quarter mile from some of the wells, but no structures had been damaged.
Firefighters worked on the fire through the day. Very little fire and smoke were visible on Friday and efforts focused on smothering hot spots and strengthening containment lines.
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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.