Officials say Gulch Fire had the potential to be the worst in decades |

Officials say Gulch Fire had the potential to be the worst in decades

Caddie Nath
Summit Daily News
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Mark Fox
Mark Fox | Summit Daily News

The thing about Summit County, Lake Dillon fire chief Dave Parmley says, is that a wildland blaze doesn’t have to be big to be devastating.

“We have looked at the potential and we know it exists with the state of the forest,” Parmley said. “It’s not necessarily going to be a fire that is thousands of acres. We can have a fire of less than 50 acres and it can have very serious consequences as far as safety risks that it poses and potential for property loss.”

The 16.6-acre fire that broke out in Keystone Gulch, just west of Keystone Resort June 2 was an all-too-real reminder of that fact. Though it never grew to the size that fires in New Mexico, Arizona or other parts of Colorado have in the last year, the sturdy little blaze sprung up dangerously close to several homes and a popular ski resort weeks ahead of Summit’s typical fire season.

“The lesson learned is that our burn season has been extended,” Lake Dillon deputy chief Jeff Berino said. “July and August used to be the months we worried about. To see this aggressive of a fire this early in the year, it did take us by surprise.”

Summit got lucky, Berino and Parmley said.

The flames started in an area that was already being cleared of dead trees to protect the nearby resort from wildfires and just happened to be near a fire hydrant.

“That was like winning the Powerball right there,” Berino said.

The fire also started during shoulder season when there were few people in the area and late in the afternoon, leaving a short time frame for the fire to spread before sunset, when the wind died down and the humidity increased.

The final lucky break was a team of inmates trained to assist with firefighting efforts on their way through the county heading to another fire in Boulder. The team arrived within an hour to help local agencies with containment efforts.

Firefighters were able to keep the flames under control through the first night and on day two, June 3, help arrived. A type 3 Federal incident management team took over and helicopters were brought in to assist with containment efforts. Ultimately, crews dropped tens of thousands of gallons of water on the hillside near Keystone Ranch before finally containing the fire on the afternoon of June 4.

The Gulch Fire announced the arrival of what will likely be a dangerous fire season. The pine beetle epidemic has created hundreds of thousands of acres of dry fuel, and with fewer living trees blocking the sun, smaller vegetation is filling in the forest floor, creating another fire hazard.

“We’ve got kind of a volatile mix out there,” Parmley said. “And I think we’re getting to that stage where everyone has got to have their awareness up when they’re out in the forest.”

The majority of wildland fires result from human activity, officials said, often when sparks from things like engines or poorly extinguished campfires ignite.

Parmley and Berino said they encourage the public to be both careful and prepared by creating defensible space around homes and properties and signing up for the SC alert system.

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