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Worst fears realized for Missouri Heights

Lynn Burton

Like a replay from the Coal Seam Fire as viewed from downtown Glenwood Springs, folks on Missouri Heights were on their porches, in their yards and on roadways, monitoring the Panorama Fire Wednesday afternoon.

Trudi Peet, who has ranched in the Missouri Heights area since 1956, monitored the mile-long line of smoke and fire from one of her fencerows a couple of miles north of the blaze. Like others who spotted the fire soon after it started and watched it spread, she was amazed at how quickly it moved.

“It was just a little thing. It looked like a trash fire,” Peet said. “By the time it got 300 to 400 feet long, it just took off.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Peet drove her SUV to the Missouri Heights fire station, looking to inform someone that helicopters were welcome to dip into her two ponds to drop water on the fire.

Missouri Heights is a checkerboard of ranches with open pastures, and subdivisions with thick stands of pinon, juniper, scrub oak, serviceberry, creosotebush and sage.

From her fencerow, a safe distance from the fire, Peet watched the fire in part to make sure it wasn’t threatening a neighboring ranch owned by Wendy McNulty.

The drought made it worse, Peet said. “In a normal year, it wouldn’t burn nearly as well,” she said.

The fire brought back immediate memories for Peet. “We just got back from the fire at Estes Park,” she said.

Reflecting back 78 years when she lived at Woody Creek, Peet remembered accidentally starting a fire while burning an irrigation ditch. “I’m not proud of that,” she said with a grin.

As the hot afternoon wore on, the black and gray smoke rose hundreds of feet in the air, forming a mushroom stem for fluffy white cumulus clouds thousands of feet above.

A steady stream of vehicles made their way up the twisty County Road 100 to the Missouri Heights plateau, where the road levels out.

Malcolm Smith, a Carbondale Fire Board member, pulled his SUV off County Road 100 near the Missouri Heights fire station, got out, put binoculars to eyeballs, and started scanning east to west.

“I was at the fire station and thought I’d come up and see for myself. … I think this is what everyone has been in fear of,” Smith said.

Smith was on the opposite side of the fire from Peet, and from his perspective, smoke rose above the north side of a ridge that defines Panorama Ranch.

“See, it’s spiking up again,” Smith said, pointing to black smoke rising to the northwest. “That’s got to be a house. … The smoke is so black.”

Even without binoculars from Smith’s angle, houses and roads were easy to see on a Panorama hillside that borders the Strang Ranch. “See those trucks on the ridge?” Smith asked.

A few minutes later, Jim Byrnes pulled up next to Smith, got out and asked, “Can I borrow those? I need to see how my house is doing.” Byrnes quickly zeroed in on a house under construction and told Smith, “That’s me. We’re still there.”

Byrnes is a contractor who is building the log home for a client. “My crew smelled smoke at about 12:30 and called the fire department,” Byrnes said.

About 100 yards to the north of Smith at the fire station, Missouri Heights resident Laura Van Dyne didn’t seem overly concerned about activating a personal evacuation plan. For one thing, the fire was about two miles and two ridges away, and was moving away from Van Dyne’s home.

“And I’ve got a ton of defensible space around my house,” Van Dyne said.

Although the fire didn’t have much of an impact on Van Dyne, it did alter her day. “I was going to go to the farmer’s market,” she said with a laugh.

While Missouri Heights residents were out watching the smoke, Basalt area resident Ed Janicki, 20, had a different perspective.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Janicki was bopping along barefoot on Panorama Drive, wearing shorts and no shirt and toting a glass jug of water.

“We live on the other side of Basalt Mountain, so we thought we’d come check it out,” Janicki said. “We cruised around to see how close it was to our land. We saw ground zero, where it was really scorched. It must have been 200 acres.”

Janicki had come over to Panorama Ranch with two others, but they somehow got separated, and the vehicle he was searching for was gone. Janicki was later spotted hitchhiking back home on Highway 82.

Walter Stoeckl is building a log house on top of a barren knoll on Panorama Drive, across the hillside from where the fire started. He was standing outside looking north at the smoke, which came from the other side of a ridge last Wednesday afternoon.

“At first, just a little smoke came up,” Stoeckl said. “Then in about 15 minutes it was a half-mile wide. It moved awfully fast.”

The fire was also awfully loud. “It sounded like a jet going by. I thought, `Holy smokes. This is serious.'”

As the fire got more serious, at least one neighbor between Stoeckl and the blaze tried to put water on his roof with a garden hose. “But there wasn’t enough pressure to get it up there,” Stoeckl said.

Stoeckl’s house is nearly finished, and he planned to stay in it through the night.

“If I’m lucky, the wind will keep coming from the west like it is at the moment,” Stoeckl said. “If it switches to the east tomorrow morning like it sometimes does, it could be a problem.”

El Jebel Road about two miles north of Highway 82 was a flurry of activity late Wednesday afternoon as residents of the area hurried home to gather belongings and onlookers lined the road with binoculars and cameras.

“I live just over the hill, and came up here to find out if I need to evacuate,” said Stacey Stuart of El Jebel who was busy keeping an eye on the fire through a pair of binoculars at friend Stephanie Munk’s house on El Jebel Road near the Mountain Meadows Ranch subdivision.

“This is exactly what we’ve been worried about all summer,” she said.

Local fire officials have repeatedly stated their concern this summer that Missouri Heights was prime for a wildfire, and all that was needed was a spark.

“It’s nerve-racking seeing flames so close to those houses up there,” Munk said. “I’m glad they’re getting right on it.”

“I got up here as soon as I could to get the horses up into the corral,” said Ruth Minetree who has 300 acres along County Road 103 just west of the fire area. “If we have to leave, we can get the horses out. That’s our priority.”

John Kielmeyer, of Carbondale, was watching from the Catherine Store, where some residents of the fire area were checking in and making phone calls to relatives and friends.

“We’re just watching the smoke,” he said. “When it’s white, we know it’s OK, because that’s just trees and brush. Then you see black smoke, and you know that’s not good.” Black smoke is usually viewed as an indication that a structure or something other than vegetation is burning.

– Valley Journal staff writer John Stroud contributed to this report.


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