Risk to homes not over, residents told
While residents of West Glenwood were allowed to return to their homes Monday night, over the next four or five days they should be prepared to evacuate.
Fire incident commander Steve Hart told a group of about 100 citizens at Glenwood Springs High School Tuesday night that if winds pick up and change direction, the Coal Seam Fire could once again threaten homes in West Glenwood.
Residents had a chance to question local and federal fire fighters at a community meeting Tuesday.
Hart compared the risk to a four-story building that has a fire on the second floor.
“Fires have a tendency to hide until they get enough energy to go up to the next floor,” he said. “It’s the same with wildland fires. The side hill may look pretty safe, but at night the fire shows flaring.
“We actually think it’s pretty safe. But the fire is deep-seated in the ground, and in the root systems (of plants),” Hart said.
The next few days are expected to be drier and windier.
“In three or four days, I think the risk will be totally gone. But the weather could change and we could get gusty winds. And we could get right back into firefighting” in West Glenwood, he said.
Many of those at the meeting expressed emotional thanks to the firefighters.
“I love this area more today than I did yesterday. I love it more than I did when I moved here 30 years ago,” said West Glenwood resident Steve Weller. “The police came in and actually saved my life. I’d like to thank someone for that.”
Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri had his own emotional story to tell of the past four days fighting the fire.
He praised Glenwood Springs Fire Department Battalion Chief Darryl Queen for quickly assessing the fire when it first started in South Canyon and calling out a firefighting team.
Dalessandri said he was in West Glenwood when he heard the fire had jumped over the Colorado River and Interstate 70 and was burning Storm King Mountain and heading for West Glenwood.
“I knew we were in the soup at that point,” he said. “We knew we were in deja vu” remembering the devastating Storm King Fire of 1994 that killed 14 firefighters.
“There was no way to fight this fire, even with six times the resources,” he said. “The fire took the familiar path over Storm King Mountain and into West Glenwood.”
He also praised the firefighters who risked their lives to evacuate residents from Mitchell Creek on the east side of Storm King, where the fire was rushing towards the homes.
“They put themselves in harm’s way to evacuate people,” he said.
After seeing the fire roar down around the city’s new municipal operations building at the base of Red Mountain, “I had this hollow feeling that we were losing the battle. It was incredibly hopeless,” he said.
But help soon came from all over the state and region.
“By 9 p.m. we had 40 engines, 90 agencies and over 200 people fighting the fire,” he said.
But by then the winds, which he called “fire winds” created by the intense heat, had whipped up to between 60 and 70 mph.
The firefighters “did an extraordinary job. There are heroes out there who will probably go unnamed who went up Mitchell Creek to bring people down in the dark to safety zones,” he said.
Dalessandri also announced that residents of the lower Three Mile area, below the first switchbacks, could now return to their homes.
Glenwood Springs City Councilman Rick Davis asked Glenwood Springs fire chief Mike Piper what he would do about potential mud slides now that so much vegetation has been burned off steep slopes.
A revegetation team will plant seeds they hope will grow during the summer so that when the rains start there will be something to stop soil movement, Piper said.
Dalessandri said after the Storm King Fire in 1994, sensors were installed high on the mountain’s flanks to detect soil movement and warn of impending mudslides.
One such slide later that year swept some motorists into the Colorado River, causing several injuries.
Another Glenwood Springs resident asked what the county government intended to do about the burning coal seam that ignited the fire.
“We now have FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) dollars. Can we use them to prevent New Castle from going up” in flames, he asked.
“There is the technology to do it,” said Garfield County Commissioner John Martin.
“We as a community must address it.”
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Since Colorado’s not yet in the clear of the global pandemic, the Garfield School District Re-2 is heading into next year with a relatively frugal budget.