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Incarcerated people are fighting Colorado’s wildfires — including the recent Kruger Rock Fire

From left, SWIFT crew members Tyler Ben, Joshuwa Mack, Michael Estrada and Dusty Barben pause during work on a wildfire mitigation pilot project at Dome Rock State Wildlife Area on Oct. 16, 2021.
Colorado Public Radio

A law passed by the Colorado Legislature is helping expand the scope of wildland fire mitigation efforts in the state, including nearly doubling the size of a team of prison inmates specially trained in reducing fuels in communities at high risk of wildfires.

The Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program was created this year in response to the record-breaking 2020 fire season. It uses dollars from a $700 million state stimulus plan intended to spur the Colorado economy post-pandemic.

“We’re really at crisis mode in the state of Colorado,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs. He applauded the bi-partisan passage of the funding bill. On top of bolstering pre-existing wildfire mitigation programs, it deploys hand crews from the Colorado Youth Corps and Department of Corrections to thin fuels — dry brush and areas overgrown with dead trees — in wildfire-prone regions of the state.

Corrections started its State Wildland Inmate Fire Teams, or SWIFT, program in 2002 and they have responded to some of the state’s largest disasters since — from major floods in Northern Colorado to the more recent Cameron Peak and Morgan Creek fires. Nearly 100 inmates currently work on the SWIFT crews, with DOC hoping to bump that number up to 160 in coming months.

A SWIFT crew was thinning fuels at a pilot project for the new program Dome Rock State Wildlife Area near Florissant on Tuesday. Crew members worked in clusters, using chainsaws to take apart dead and dying trees. The area near Florissant borders a large number of remote private homes. Local elected officials and state agency executives observed their progress before speaking to reporters.

“This is the best job in prison,” said SWIFT crew team leader Kevin Payton. “It’s the highest paying job, it gives us the best opportunity to get home to our families sooner. It gives us something to be proud of.”

Dean Williams, executive director of the corrections department, said the SWIFT crews are made up of low-risk, nonviolent offenders and expanding the program benefits both the state and the incarcerated individuals on the crews.

“These folks are all gonna be our neighbors again, right? And getting out and having purpose while you’re serving your time and being able to give back is everything,” Williams said. The bill passed this year triples the pay for the inmates, to $40 a day for members in their first season.

SWIFT crew member Michael Estrada has only been in prison six months. He said he’s serving seven years after accidentally hitting and killing a man with his car in Colorado Springs. When he was told he qualified for a SWIFT crew, he got involved as quickly as he could. The former professional welder said the handful of times he’s been out in the field with the SWIFT crew has inspired him to work toward shifting his career to firefighting when he gets out of prison.

“I like it, it’s in me because I love the outdoors,” Estrada said. “It’s being around the good people, they have your back, it’s like a family pretty much.”

Shortly after the group spoke to reporters at the Dome Rock pilot project, Tuesday, the SWIFT crew was called up to Estes Park to assist in fighting the Kruger Rock fire.

‘The new normal:’ One year after the East Troublesome Fire made its historic run, federal agencies are adjusting to meet growing wildfire demand

The East Troublesome Fire is pictured from Cottonwood Pass on the evening of Oct 21, 2020, in Grand County. One year ago, the blaze grew more than 87,000 acres in a 24-hour period from Oct. 21-22, 2020.
Andrew Lussie/Courtesy photo

Wildland firefighting is changing on a national scale.

For the past 20 years or so, fire officials and everyday community members have seen an unmistakable pattern of growing wildfire danger across the western United States.

According to data provided by the National Interagency Coordination Center, more than 3.2 million acres of forest burned in wildfires across the country on average between 1983 and 2000. Between 2001 and 2020, that average jumped to more than 7 million acres — over 10,977 square miles — and the only three recorded years with more than 10 million acres burned have all occurred since 2015.

There are a number of factors contributing to the trend, including past land management policies, climate change and expanded human development into the wildland urban interface, to name a few. But one thing is clear: America is burning.

“Overall, we are seeing an increase in large wildfire activity,” said Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center based out of Boise, Idaho. “On average, we’re seeing fire years extend by about 60 days on either end of the spring or the fall. It’s been gradual over the last 20 years, but it’s definitely occurring.”

As the size and severity of wildfires continues to grow, so too does the demand on federal firefighting resources. And officials say they’re changing the way they approach firefighting to try and stay ahead of the game.

Preparing for the unexpected

A strong attack on the ground is key in wildfire suppression and containment, but it’s getting more dangerous to place firefighters in the path of what are becoming increasingly unpredictable blazes. The best example is here on the Western Slope.

In about a 24-hour period from Oct. 21-22, 2020, the East Troublesome Fire exploded, growing more than 87,000 acres — fueled by high winds, drought conditions and beetle-killed trees that served as the perfect kindling for the fire’s rapid growth.

That kind of fire behavior, especially overnight, is extraordinary by any measure. But officials say it’s now what they’re forced to plan for.

“I think we’re at the point now where that’s normal,” said Adam Bianchi, district ranger for the Dillon Ranger District of the White River National Forest. “… We just have seen fire behavior change and do things differently that historically we have not, and we’re just learning differently with that. That goes also back into the safety aspect. Where we would historically feel comfortable in certain situations knowing how fire typically burns, now we may not be as aggressive. …

“With lower (relative humidity) and cooler temperatures, we felt like nighttime was always a good opportunity to make good headway on any sort of suppression or containment. That’s not necessarily the truth anymore, so we’ve had to adjust, I think, on our tactics and just accept that it’s not unprecedented. This is it: This is the new normal, and we need to be prepared for the unexpected.”

Perhaps the biggest change in the wildland culture over the past decade-plus is a movement away from more traditional and aggressive tactics on the ground, pulling firefighters away from situations where they could be killed or injured — futilely facing down a flaming front or moving through areas with dead-standing trees — and putting them in a position where they can actually succeed.

Firefighters often rely on firebreaks to find safe places to engage a fire, whether that’s a road, a natural barrier or an area that’s been treated by a hazardous fuels mitigation project. But those projects are expensive.

Bianchi said that in the past, companies would pay the U.S. Forest Service to come in and harvest timber. In places like Colorado, he said that industry has shrunk to the point where fuels-mitigation projects leave the service in the red, and it’s reliant on partnerships with local governments to subsidize the work. That means federal officials have to be careful with where they plan projects to get the most bang for their buck.

“That’s where we struggle, and so our philosophies had to change,” Bianchi said. “Instead of doing these really large, landscape-scale projects with a lot of acres, it’s about being strategic. We have a finite amount of money, and we really have to rely on partners … putting in dollars to help us manage it.”

Aviation resources are another major expense, but they’re also key in helping to reduce extreme fire behavior and giving firefighters on the ground a chance to do their work. Given the extensive demand for those aircraft in recent years, federal officials have had to prioritize what goes where.

Gardetto said the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group — a collaboration of fire managers from various agencies — meet twice daily to determine where the most highly requested resources should go.

“We have to be really strategic in years like this and like last year when we have a significant number of large wildfires burning across the landscape,” Gardetto said, adding that it’s similar to the military moving soldiers and military resources around during war.

“(It’s) involved, and in some cases, (resources) can be moved daily or even a couple times in a day with something like aerial resources that can move quickly,” she explained.

Gardetto said that federal wildland fire agencies are looking into expanding the nation’s fleet of aircraft to meet growing demand along with additional employees to facilitate the associated contracting work.

“It’s not just adding the actual metal that’s flying in the air; it’s all the support personnel that come along with it,” she said.

Supporting firefighters

Firebreaks and slurry drops do little good without men and women on the ground doing the dirty work.

Gardetto said there is an ongoing effort at the national level to transform the wildland firefighting workforce. She noted that the Bureau of Land Management is working to create a ratio of 80% full-time to 20% seasonal employees — she said about one-third of employees are currently permanent — and that other federal agencies are working on similar initiatives.

With wildfire season rapidly expanding into the fall and winter months in some areas of the country and more mitigation projects needed, a more permanent wildland workforce would be ideal. But lately, federal agencies have had difficulties recruiting and retaining those firefighters. Officials say the problem is poor wages, limited benefits and brutal working conditions.

“We’re seeing people leave and take other jobs, and we’re seeing competition with private industry,” Gardetto said. “Some places like Costco are offering higher starting wages than entry-level fire positions. … We want to increase wages to give firefighters a living wage and then ensure that they have meaningful careers: providing permanent positions with benefits and increasing our workforce so that we can allow firefighters to take time off in the summer to ensure a work-life balance. Right now, being a wildland firefighter often means being gone from your family and away from home for months at a time.”

There has been a push in Congress to address funding issues. The infrastructure funding bill would allocate about $3.4 billion toward wildfire risk reduction efforts, including hazardous fuels reduction programs, community wildfire mitigation grants and wage increases for firefighters.

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado, co-chair of the bipartisan wildfire caucus, last month passed a pair of measures through the U.S. House of Representatives centered on improving housing opportunities and mental health programs for federal firefighters as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

On Tuesday, Oct. 19, Neguse and his co-sponsors unveiled the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, named for a smokejumper who died in the line of duty in New Mexico earlier this year. If signed into law, the bill would raise federal firefighter pay to at least $20 an hour, ensure firefighters earn retirement benefits and create a new federal wildland firefighter employment classification so they’re recognized for the dangerous work they’re doing, among other changes.

According to Neguse, federal firefighters are currently classified as forestry technicians, make an average entry wage of about $13.45 per hour and are infrequently provided with adequate health care benefits.

Finding solutions together

Wildfires are changing here in Colorado and around the country, and finding and implementing the right solutions to fight back isn’t going to be easy.

Officials emphasized that in addition to expanding federal and state firefighting capabilities, local communities need to understand their role in preventing catastrophic wildfires.

“Historically, many communities have had the attitude of, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen to us,’” Gardetto said. “So they don’t take proactive measures to reduce the wildfire risk around their communities.

“That’s something that, while the federal government can assist with grants and conduct treatments around communities on federal properties, it’s really the responsibility of homeowners to make sure their property is resistant to fire. Thankfully, that’s something we’re seeing. People are making firewise efforts. We’re seeing more firewise communities. However, we still have a ways to go.”

Burn scars: Recovery from Colorado’s largest wildfire feels a long way out

Lyle and Marilyn Hileman, shown in this photo posted by their family on Twitter, died together in their home just outside Grand Lake when the East Troublesome Fire burned over 193,812 acres in October 2020.
Courtesy photo

No one lost more in the East Troublesome Fire than Lyle and Marilyn Hileman, an elderly couple who died inside their home as the fire barreled down on Grand Lake and the surrounding neighborhoods Oct. 21, 2020.

The couple, ages 86 and 84, refused to the leave the home they loved. In a letter to the community in the weeks following the fire, the Hilemans’ family remembered over 30 years of memories with their parents and grandparents at the Grand Lake house.

Along with those two lives, the East Troublesome Fire took 366 homes and 189 structures and buildings. Damages are estimated at nearly $200 million, and the burn scar spreads across nearly a fifth of Grand County.

In the year since the fire, homeowners have sifted through the ashes, battled insurance companies and tried to rebuild — or have left it behind.

However they have chosen to move on in the year since the fire, these are a few stories from the East Troublesome Fire’s scar, which covers 193,812 acres.

Determined to rebuild

The grand marshall of the 2021 Buffalo Days parade, Elaine Busse, rides a horse down Grand Avenue on Aug. 22 at 97 years old. Busse’s property, the Winding River Ranch, was burned in the East Troublesome Fire, but her faith and determination to remain on the land are stronger than ever.
Eli Pace/Sky-Hi News

The East Troublesome Fire overtook the Winding River Ranch and its deadly flames engulfed the property, but the fire couldn’t touch all the memories or hard work that Elaine Busse and her family have put into the land over the past 63 years.

At 97 years old, Busse is in the recovery process like so many others. The fire burned the entire Winding River Ranch property, setting 29 buildings ablaze at the popular wedding venue famous for breathtaking views of the Never Summer Mountains.

Busse estimates it will take a few years just to clean up all the rubble and debris before they can actually start to rebuild.

While the damage was widespread and the work that lies ahead is immense, the faith and resolve that’s sustained Busse and her family for decades are now propelling her through the disaster.

“I’m still trying to convince myself it’s all gone,” she said. “I mean, it’s gone. It’s very strange. But, you know, I know in my heart God is on the throne. He is the boss. He will help us do whatever He wants to make it right. I won’t be here to see that, but my grandchildren will.”

When Busse moved from Illinois to Grand County more than six decades ago, she had never seen a mountain before. She recalled that her family, including her teenage children, all thought she was crazy and that it took a lot to pull up for a life in the Rockies.

“’So you’re moving to the mountains?’ They looked at me like I had lost my marbles — but they all came,” Busse recalled. “They all worked hard, and they all brought someone to help. It’s interesting that my children all brought someone to help and they ended up marrying the very people they brought.”

An old newspaper clipping that had been laminated, family photographs and other prized possessions burned up in the Troublesome fire, along with all the ranch’s computers, files and buildings — everything. But the memories Busse and her family have, including her 12 great-great grandchildren, remain well intact.

“I’ve been very blessed,” Busse said as she reflected on her situation.

“People have been so wonderful,” she continued. “People that were on the ranch, helping me at 14, 15, 16 — they’re now in their 60s and 70s. I’m getting calls from all these kids; I just never realized how their lives changed because of the ranch. Nobody can take away all the memories or the hard work.”

Busse said she hasn’t considered retiring yet, though her children and grandchildren might wish that she would.

“Well, my children and my grandchildren especially, ‘Grandma will you please stop working,’” Busse said. “But you know what, my work is so rewarding and I see miracles every day.”

No instruction manual

JD Krones, left, poses with his dog, Cauli, and other Rotary Club volunteers during a reseeding project in June at the Grand Lake Golf Course. Krones’ home, which was not far from the golf course, burned in the East Troublesome Fire. He helped organize the reseeding day for the recreation district.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

JD Krones does not feel like much of an expert on rebuilding.

A year after losing his home to the East Troublesome Fire, he hasn’t made nearly the progress he imagined he would in the immediate aftermath.

In the days and weeks following the fire, Krones wrote essays outlining the future — to spend the winter planning and break ground as soon as the snow melted — and calling on the outpouring of support to keep up in the months to come.

“I was really energized,” Krones recalled. “I was like, this is a challenge that we can all tackle and bring the community together. I’ve never experienced depression, so I think that was something that was a little unexpected. … I think it’s more of a disappointment in myself that I wasn’t able to actually achieve what I wanted to in those early essays.”

The executive director of the Colorado Headwaters Land Trust, Krones moved to Grand County with his cat, Gus, in 2018. He bought a little cabin outside of Grand Lake near the golf course in February 2020 and got his dog, Cauli, a few months later.

It was the perfect size, the perfect location and the perfect time to transition.

“I never thought I’d be one to say this because I’ve been trail crew, cowboy and very kind of nomadic — but I was doing everything right,” Krones said. “I got a good job, I bought a house, got a dog, whatever. Then it all just went up in smoke — literally.”

Wanting to be self-sufficient, Krones thought he would figure out the rebuilding process himself. But rebuilding is a full-time job, and he simply didn’t have the mental resources.

Full of vigor but having no idea what to do, Krones’ energy quickly disappeared.

“That’s something where there’s so many resources out there about fire prevention and fire mitigation,” Krones said. “There’s not a whole lot — at least not easily available or obvious — about the steps that you go through (rebuilding) and how you go through it the easiest way. If I didn’t have an attorney, which I didn’t think about until about six months in, I have no idea what I’d be doing.”

The confusion and frustration of the rebuilding process, coupled with the intricacies of navigating insurance policies following a total loss, has taught Krones that the process simply is not working.

“We all know that we need one. We don’t know how they work, home insurance and all those things,” he said. “I think that’s something that I’ve learned we need to pay more attention to. It shouldn’t be like this. It shouldn’t be this difficult.”

Krones is finally in talks with a contractor about designing and building his new place. He’s trying to get everything sorted so that construction can begin next spring.

Moving forward

Tyler Klees, Laura Mauck and their son, Roman, are pictured in December 2020. The family lost their home to the East Troublesome Fire and is in the long, slow haul of rebuilding.
Laura Mauck / Courtesy photo

Returning to their ranch on County Road 42 days after the East Troublesome forced them to flee, Laura Mauck was pretty sure the family home she shared with her partner, newborn son and in-laws would be gone.

She didn’t expect to see the fully-stocked hay shed or wooden barn sitting intact and unharmed just 100 yards from the remnants of their home.

“I remember calling my mom and going, ‘I think our house is going to burn down,’” Mauck said. “I think it caught the wind or the embers from the fire because almost nothing to the right in the valley burned.”

Luckily, Mauck and her partner Tyler Klees had moved their 27 horses to Hot Sulphur Springs during the pre-evacuation. However, the night they had to leave their home was still chaotic.

Under the threat of looming flames, Mauck frantically gathered everything she might need for her 3-month-old Roman and was unable to collect family heirlooms and priceless memories. As the family was almost out the door, Klees turned back for their dalmatian, Luna, who was hiding from the smoke and heat.

“I remember looking back at (US Highway) 34 and County Road 42 and seeing the fire on that ridgeline,” Mauck said. “Innately, you feel that sense of urgency.”

Later, a neighbor told Mauck that she saw their house start to burn only about 15 minutes after they cleared out.

For the next few months, the family hopped from place to place while trying to navigate insurance and cleanup efforts, while still working on breaking horses and running a Minnesota hotel.

“It was not my ideal first-child, first-year-of-life situation,” Mauck said.

In February, they moved into a modular home on their property to begin the lengthy rebuilding process. When it came time to decide how to recover, there were a lot of mixed feelings. Real estate and building costs were spiking, while home insurance was stingy with payments. For Mauck and the family, it came down to having so many memories on the land.

“It was like ‘how can we leave, but how can we stay?’ … but you can’t find a property like ours,” Mauck said. “We all love the view, and it doesn’t get any better, even with the burn scar that’s there because eventually it will be overgrown with beautiful aspen.”

However, insurance only covered one-third of the estimated costs, leading the rebuild to be significantly different from their old home, shrinking in size and lacking the log cabin design that Klees and Mauck loved.

Additionally, the family learned their home wasn’t in a fire district, and they’re now petitioning to become a part of one to help protect their new space, which is already under construction.

Though there’s still a long way to go — likely another 18 months before the home is finished — Klees is glad to be one year removed from the fire.

“It was, ‘Don’t worry about what you can’t control, move forward and focus on what you can,’” Klees said. “I’m so thankful for where we’re at now compared to where we were.”

A move to heal

Laura and Keith Kratz are shown inside Studio 8369, a destination art studio in Grand Lake that closed earlier this year. The owners of the studio lost their home in the East Troublesome Fire and are moving out of state to be closer to their children and grandchildren.
Thomas Cooper/courtesy photo

Among the 366 homes destroyed by the Troublesome Fire, one belonged to Keith and Laura Kratz, owners of Studio 8369, a beloved, eclectic little art studio that closed earlier this year.

About five years ago, Keith and Laura Kratz bought the business that had existed as a staple in Grand Lake since 1992. They refused to call it an “art gallery” because they believe that everyday people might prefer the feeling of an “art studio.”

For Laura, a painter, and Keith, a photographer, the studio was the prefect outlet to showcase their work alongside that of more than 70 other Colorado artisans, offering everything from woodworking and blown glass to pottery and all sorts of different types of paintings.

With such a wide assortment, Studio 8369 was a destination for tourists, and countless locals found wedding and graduation gifts there. For the Kratzes, the studio was a special place where people fell in love with art they could actually afford to take home.

However, the couple has since packed up and hit the road. The Troublesome fire wasn’t the only reason Laura and Keith decided to close their business and move to Washington state, but it played a major role in their decision-making process.

“That was an extremely difficult decision to make,” Laura said of closing the business, explaining that after losing everything in the fire and finding out the owner of the building housing their studio wanted to sell, they could not afford to buy it themselves or build new.

Coupled with a spring trip to visit their children and grandchildren, the Kratzes felt like they needed a change of setting, and this was simply the right time.

“It was a very healing time to be there (with our family in Washington), and we kind of felt like we couldn’t continue to heal here, and that it was time to go be near kids and the grandkids,” Laura said. “I never thought I would use the ‘R word,’ and say we ‘retired.’”

“And we never really thought we’d leave Colorado, either,” Keith interjected. “But like you said, and our daughters kind of nudged us … family is important, and for the healing process, we really need to do this.”

Being surrounded by the burn scar and seeing many of their friends leave hasn’t been easy for Keith and Laura Kratz. While they will always be grateful for their experience in Grand Lake and at Studio 8369, they also fear what the future of wildfires could mean for the area and need to heal.

The East Troublesome Fire got so hot that it melted this basketball goal at the Winding River Ranch north of Grand Lake. While this basketball hoop was warped beyond recognition, the one at the other side of the court looked playable.
Eli Pace / epace@skyhinews.com

The next fire

After the fire, the house next to Krones’ was still standing. From what he understands of that night, it makes sense: A crew showed up to his home already burning and went to work to protect his neighbor’s house.

“People asked me, ‘Are you angry at her, my neighbor? Do you blame anybody?’” Krones said. “I was like, what is this weird psychological phenomenon that we have that we have to afford blame to somebody or get angry at a specific person or specific event?”

If Krones blames anything, as someone with a passion for land management, he blames the last century of policies that have cultivated such an unhealthy forest ecosystem across the American West.

“It’s not just a fluke,” he said. “It’s not just a one-time event. This has been leading up to for at least the last century if not the last 400 years.”

Years from now, Krones hopes the East Troublesome Fire will be seen as a turning point in the perception of community and land management. He thinks the approach needs to be more holistic, bringing everyone to the table, providing more incentives for logging and better appreciation for land managers like cattle ranchers.

Krones feels certain that what happened with East Troublesome won’t be the only one of its kind. Whether it’s a year or decades from now, he hopes Grand County will be ready.

Despite the challenges, Krones isn’t going anywhere. He was ready to settle down in Grand County last February, and that attitude hasn’t changed. It’s just been delayed a bit.

“Let’s see what happens, if I’m able to do this,” Krones said. “If I’m not, I’ll slink back to Maryland with my tail between my legs and help my dad on the farm.”

Pre-evacuation orders lifted for Ptarmigan Fire

The Summit County Sheriff’s Office has lifted all pre-evacuation orders for the Ptarmigan Fire effective 12 p.m. Monday, Oct. 4, including the Hamilton Creek, Angler Mountain Ranch, South Forty and Ptarmigan neighborhoods.

Road closures in the area have also been lifted, and community members will no longer need credentials to access the Hamilton Creek and upper Angler Mountain neighborhoods.

Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said the fire is still active, and community members should continue to avoid the area when possible so that firefighting operations aren’t impeded.

“After meeting with fire managers on scene, and with the recent success in obtaining more containment on the fire, everybody agrees that this is a good time to lift the pre-evacuation orders,” FitzSimons said. “Everybody should remain vigilant.”

The North Pond Park and trails in the area will remain closed until further notice.

The fire remains at about 86 acres and is currently 35% contained.

Ptarmigan Fire evacuations lifted, officials urge residents to remain alert

Smoke from the Ptarmigan Fire is seen Tuesday morning, Sept. 28 from the Willowbrook neighborhood. Evacuees will be allowed to return home at 10 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 30.
Steve Hockett/Courtesy photo

The evacuees are headed home.

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons announced during a community update at Silverthorne Town Hall Wednesday night, Sept. 29, that residents in the Hamilton Creek and upper Angler Mountain Ranch neighborhoods would be allowed to return to their homes at 10 a.m. Thursday morning, Sept. 30.

“This change is based on ground and aerial assessments of the fire activity as well as the work firefighters were able to complete on the ground Wednesday,” FitzSimons said. “While the Ptarmigan Fire still poses a risk, (I) and the fire officials do not feel the risk warrants keeping people out of their homes provided they remain alert and ready to evacuate on short notice should conditions change.”

The wildfire ignited Monday afternoon, Sept. 27, on U.S. Forest Service land northeast of Silverthorne, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homes in the area. Thanks to the diligent efforts of firefighters, law enforcement and other community partners — along with Mother Nature, who provided quite a bit of precipitation over the past couple days — Wednesday night will be the last that evacuees spend on hotel beds and neighbors’ couches — at least for now.

The Ptarmigan Fire burns northeast of Silverthorne on Monday, Sept. 27. Evacuees will be allowed to return home at 10 a.m. Thursday.
Christian Harris/Courtesy photo

The Hamilton Creek and upper Angler Mountain neighborhoods will be downgraded to pre-evacuation status along with residents in the South Forty neighborhood; Angler Mountain neighborhood on Bald Eagle Road, Fly Line Drive and below; and residents east and uphill of Summit County Road 2020 and north of Summit County Road 2021. Residents must still be credentialed at the Silverthorne Town Hall in order to return home, FitzSimons said.

The announcement came just hours after FitzSimons said residents likely wouldn’t be able to return home for another 48 to 72 hours. But by the end of the day, fire managers felt the western edge of the blaze above the residential areas was “looking quite good” and that it was finally safe enough for ground crews to begin engaging the wildfire in earnest.

Incident Commander Eric White said he started the day taking a helicopter trip over the fire and that crews on the ground were able to walk around the fire’s entire perimeter. Officials believe the fire is still about 85 acres large.

“After doing that we were able to determine that we can, in fact, engage firefighters directly onto the fire line,” White said. “That’s not to say there’s not a risk to firefighters. The risk is still there, it’s just not quite as much as we thought. What that means is we’re going to get in (and) we’re going to continue to engage, but it’s going to be a slow process.”

On Wednesday, White said firefighters were able to cold trail — dragging their hands through burned areas to ensure there was no heat — from the southern heel up the western flank of the fire. He said they were able to remove a significant amount of fuels from the area, as well.

White said in the coming days, firefighters — and helicopters when necessary — would continue to build containment lines along the western portion of the fire perimeter. Once completed, they’ll move to the northern end of the perimeter. He said he expects firefighting operations to continue for a couple more weeks in the area.

A helicopter fills up at Dillon Reservoir on Tuesday, Sept. 28.
Elaine Collins/Courtesy photo

Officials noted that despite the good news, the fire is very much still active. They asked residents returning to the area to keep to their homes and out of firefighters’ way, and to stay prepared in case there are any further evacuations.

“I’m not saying that all risk, all potential for further evacuation or anything of that nature is out of the question, but we’re feeling pretty comfortable that we’re not going to be there,” White said. “So we do ask that you remain alert. Remain ready to go just in the event that something unforeseen happens.”

It’s unclear when the pre-evacuation notices will be lifted or when residents in Hamilton Creek and upper Angler Mountain Ranch will be able to access the area without credentials. FitzSimons said officials would continue to evaluate conditions on a daily basis.

“We reassess and reevaluate this every day,” FitzSimons said. “So it will be in place until we find it safe to either start lifting the pre-evac notices or lifting the closure of the area. So it’s a day-by-day thing.”

FitzSimons also announced that Wednesday night’s community briefing would be the last, canceling future meetings unless fire conditions change.

Evacuated residents were able to briefly return to their homes Wednesday morning to collect belongings they may have left behind during their rush out of the neighborhood. Evacuees said they were thankful for the opportunity and for the community members who stepped up to offer aid over the past few days.

“The best part of this whole thing is we’ve had about 20 different people offer us a place to stay, which shows the quality of life in Summit County that people are so supportive of others,” Hamilton Creek resident Mike Kramer said. “… The people we’re staying with have helped out tremendously with support in feeding us and giving us a place to sleep, and things are going really well for us.”

It’s undoubtedly been a long few days for residents of the Hamilton Creek and upper Angler Mountain neighborhoods, along with the myriad community members under a pre-evacuation notice looking on to see if they would be the next forced out of their homes.

Now, residents are breathing a little easier knowing they’ll be spending Thursday night in their own beds and that their homes are safe.

For some, there was never any doubt.

“We knew that we would get back, and we knew these people would take care of us,” Angler Mountain resident John Preckshot said. “And they did.”

Ptarmigan Fire approaches 100 acres with more evacuations ordered

Flames can be seen emerging from the smoke as fire officials work to contain the Ptarmigan Fire on Tuesday, Sept. 28.
Tripp Fay/Courtesy photo

It was another somber day in Summit County on Tuesday, Sept. 28, as community members watched the Ptarmigan Fire northeast of Silverthorne continued to cast a black plume of smoke over the area.

Those evacuated from their homes gathered at Silverthorne Town Hall to get credentials in hopes that they’d be given an opportunity to return, even for a few minutes, to collected their most cherished and important items. Residents prayed for the heavens to open up and bring a downpour over the blaze. And firefighters and aircraft from around the state arrived in force to protect hundreds of homes below the looming force of nature.

“It’s frightening,” said Calvin Stewart, a Hamilton Creek resident who was evacuated Monday night. “… Of course your first thought — being in denial — is, ‘We’re going to be just fine.’ But the reality is we may not. So it’s just a waiting game. And at this point, I’m just numb to it all. … I had to have some sort of acceptance. We can’t control it.”

The Ptarmigan Fire ignited on U.S. Forest Service land northeast of Silverthorne on Monday afternoon, spurring the evacuation of nearly 300 homes in the Hamilton Creek neighborhood. Another evacuation order was issued Tuesday for the upper Angler Mountain Ranch neighborhood. A pre-evacuation notice is currently in place for residents in the Angler Mountain neighborhood on Bald Eagle Road, Fly Line Drive and below, along with residents east and uphill of Summit County Road 2020 and north of Summit County Road 2021.

Summit Fire & EMS spokesperson Steve Lipsher said the cause of the fire is still under investigation. As of 9 p.m. Tuesday, no homes had been burned.

Adam Bianchi, district ranger with the Dillon Ranger District, said despite higher humidity and colder temperatures, the fire grew from about 17 acres Monday night to an estimated 60 acres Tuesday morning. It continued to grow to between 85 and 100 acres throughout the day Tuesday, according to the latest estimates. Bianchi said the growth was primarily toward the north and east, away from residential areas.

An air tanker drops slurry on the perimeter of the Ptarmigan Fire on Tuesday, Sept. 28.
Joe Staley/Courtesy photo

“We really focused our efforts on the western flank and the south heel of the fire,” Bianchi said. “We really were concentrating to make sure that the fire was not moving down into the subdivision. You can see there that we were successful. The fire did not grow there. It actually grew more to the east and to the north, so we were pretty happy with those efforts (Tuesday).”

Similar to Monday, firefighting efforts were conducted primarily via aircraft, including four helicopters and a large air tanker. For now, conditions are considered too dangerous for ground crews.

“The conditions are challenging, and right now it’s not so much a fire condition as it is a snag condition,” Incident Commander Eric White said. “So we really need to approach where the fire is at in the timber very methodically and clear the snags as we go so we don’t get firefighter injuries or worse out there. … Where the fire is right now makes it extremely challenging to get in and address due to those snags.”

Snags are unstable trees that could potentially fall over with little-to-no warning and injure firefighters. White said getting ground crews up to the fire line would likely be necessary in order to start building containment.

“Right now, we’re not showing any containment on the fire,” White said. “… The rain has helped the fire an awful lot, but until we can actually get people up safely on the ground to go and actually secure that edge by putting hands and tools (in the ground) and declaring it out, we’re really not going to start to show that containment.”

There are currently about 100 firefighters assigned to the wildfire to monitor its behavior overnight, step in to protect homes if necessary and to begin building containment lines when the time is right.

Mother Nature did provide some relief, with rain coming down over the area starting at about 1 p.m., though the weather also grounded all of the aircraft dropping slurry and water over the blaze. Bianchi said the plan is to “hit it hard” with aircraft again Wednesday morning before more rain moves into the area in the afternoon.

Smoke plumes can be seen rising from the Ptarmigan Fire on Tuesday, Sept. 28.
Elaine Collins/Courtesy photo

While evacuated residents didn’t get a chance to return home at any point Tuesday, Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said evacuees would have a window from 8-10 a.m. Wednesday to enter the area and collect belongings. Residents are required to pick up credentials from Silverthorne Town Hall before heading to the evacuation area. Town Hall will open at 7 a.m. to begin issuing credentials for anyone who hasn’t already picked one up. Residents must provide identification that shows they live in the evacuated area in order to receive credentials.

“The fire activity is obviously really low in the morning, so we’re not concerned about wildfire behavior up there while you’re in there,” FitzSimons said during an update at Silverthorne Town Hall on Tuesday night. “Also, it gives us that short window before the aircraft start again. … You saw the airshow today, I’m sure. It will be there again tomorrow. … We want you in and out before that happens.”

Officials are encouraging community members who haven’t already to sign up for the Summit County Alert system at SummitCountyCo.gov/scalert and to frequently check news outlets and local social media channels for up-to-date information. Residents can also call a public information hotline at 970-668-9700 with questions, and another briefing will be held at Silverthorne Town Hall at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

Officials are also urging community members to be respectful of firefighting operations by keeping out of the area whenever possible and keeping drones grounded.

“If (the Forest Service) has aircraft in the air and a drone flies up in the air, they’ve got to immediately ground all those aircraft,” FitzSimons said. “So if we ground all the aircraft, we’re not able to fight the fire because it is not safe at this point to put ground crews in the area. … I do have federal law enforcement partners … that will find these people flying drones, and they will go after them.”

The National Weather Service forecast calls for scattered showers throughout Wednesday and over the following days.

While there’s mostly good news for now, evacuees spending another night away from home are still left with a sense of uncertainty.

“Obviously, you don’t know what’s going to happen when it’s a couple miles from your house and you can’t watch it,” Hamilton Creek resident Eric Bienemann said. “It’s definitely a bit unsettling. There’s nothing we can do at this point (except) … just wait it out and let the experts take care of business and hope the winds keep shifting in favorable directions.”

Some have been through similar experiences before. Susan Rubin-Stewart, wife of Calvin Stewart, said the couple lost their home in the Bahamas during Hurricane Dorian in 2019, and they’re still working to rebuild.

“People don’t realize the aftermath of rebuilding your house and stuff like that,” Rubin-Stewart said. “That takes a really long time, especially when there’s multiple houses. But I have total confidence in the firefighters. … Those guys are experts. I don’t think it will get to most of the houses at all. They just know their business so well, and they’re so well organized.”

Ptarmigan Fire near Silverthorne grows to nearly 60 acres, evacuation orders issued

A helicopter approaches the Ptarmigan Fire near Silverthorne on Tuesday, Sept. 28.
Joe Staley/Courtesy photo

2:11 p.m. It began raining in Summit County at around 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 28. According to the National Weather Service’s Silverthorne forecast, showers are likely through Tuesday night. Chances for rain and snow are in the forecast through the weekend. Officials are hoping the precipitation will help firefighting efforts.

12:45 p.m. Officials provided an update on the Ptarmigan Fire at Silverthorne Town Hall this morning.

Adam Bianchi, district ranger with the Dillon Ranger District, said the fire grew about 40 acres overnight and is currently around 60 acres based on mapping from an aircraft mission Monday and early estimates Tuesday morning.

“We saw a lot of fire activity over the night, which, with temperatures dropping, it was a little surprise to us to see a lot of the torching that we saw,” Bianchi said. “And a lot especially in some of those aspen stands, as well. So it was a little unprecedented.”

Bianchi said the cause of the fire was still unknown, but he noted that it started in an area near a trail, suggesting it may have been human caused.

Bianchi said there was currently a significant aircraft response taking place, including a large air tanker dropping retardant along the perimeter of the blaze. He said firefighters would tie containment lines into the Ptarmigan Trail, and drop as much retardant as possible on the west and south sides of the fire.

“That is the critical spot for us,” Bianchi said. “We don’t want it to continue to move downhill into the housing development where our structures are at. So we’re really trying to work on this flank. The great thing about it is that is predominantly where a lot of the aspen is. We’ve got some grass and sage. So it is an area where we can start to engage the fire a little more aggressively.”

Bianchi said there were currently two 20-person hand crews in route in addition to a seven-person ground crew currently helping to direct air resources.

Officials are also hoping rain forecast this afternoon and over the coming days will help firefighting efforts.

“Looking into the next couple days, that’s really going to be our goal, we’re going to (shore) up some of these spot fires,” Bianchi said. “… The column kind of laid down to the north last night and caused some of these spot fires, and so we’re really going to look at those and try to (shore) up those as well to make sure those don’t continue to grow and push the fire further north. We’re looking at additional precipitation in the next couple days, as well, so we’re really looking forward to utilizing the weather to help us fight this along with air resources and the ground resources that are coming.”

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said a total of about 617 homes in the Hamilton Creek, Angler Mountain and South Forty neighborhoods are currently under either an evacuation order or pre-evacuation notice. The homes are valued at an estimated $400 million, FitzSimons said.

Ptarmigan Fire updates

For full updates on the Ptarmigan Fire, visit summitdaily.com

He went on to provide some additional insight into the decision to issue a mandatory evacuation order in the upper Angler Mountain neighborhood Tuesday morning.

“With the incoming storm and the winds changing direction … we just want to be prudent and proactive and obviously precautionary,” FitzSimons said. “It’s easier to move people out of these neighborhoods, like we did last night, while things are like this rather than a last-minute panic. So we ask for a little bit of grace. We ask for your patience.”

FitzSimons said he and other fire managers will continue to look for opportunities to allow evacuated residents back to into their homes temporarily. County staff members are currently credentialing evacuees at Silverthorne Town Hall so that, when allowed, officials can keep track of who returns to the evacuation zone and to ensure everyone makes it back out. Residents will not be allowed to return to their homes without being issued credentials.

Both FitzSimons and Bianchi also spoke to the importance of keeping drones out of the area.

“If (the Forest Service) has aircraft in the air and a drone flies up in the air, they’ve got to immediately ground all those aircraft,” FitzSimons said. “So if we ground all the aircraft, we’re not able to fight the fire because it is not safe at this point to put ground crews in the area. … I do have federal law enforcement partners … that will find these people flying drones, and they will go after them.”

Commissioner Josh Blanchard urged everyone to respond appropriately to evacuation and pre-evacuation orders.

“If you’re given that evacuation notice, we need you to leave immediately and safely,” Blanchard said. “Make sure that you have your credentials and the recommended items that you have with you.”

Blanchard also thanked community members who have reached out to offer support to evacuees and the numerous mutual-aid responders from neighboring communities.

“We know that Summit County is special,” Blanchard said. “We know that our mountain community pulls together to support one another in times of need in ways that are truly unique. … We will get through this together.”

11:35 a.m. The cause of the fire is under investigation. Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi noted that the fire started along a trail, hinting that it was likely human caused.

11:30 a.m. A public information hotline has been set up at 970-668-9700.

11:29 a.m. All evacuation and pre-evacuation areas total 617 homes, valued at $400 million, according to Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons. As a reminder, the Hamilton Creek and upper Angler Mountain neighborhoods are under mandatory evacuation orders. Residents on Bald Eagle Road, Fly Line Drive and below are currently under a pre-evacuation notice along with the South Forty neighborhood.

11:27 a.m. The fire is estimated at about 57 acres today, after growing about 40 acres overnight, according to Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi, who called the estimation a ballpark. He said the size of the fire was confirmed at 17 acres at 10 p.m. Monday, smaller than officials initially guessed. Bianchi said officials were surprised by the overnight growth.

11 a.m. Live update is set to start any minute at Silverthorne Town Hall, 601 Center Circle. Watch in English and Spanish at Facebook.com/summitdailynews.

10:31 a.m. The Summit County Office of Emergency Management has issued a mandatory evacuation order for the upper Angler Mountain neighborhood. Residents on Bald Eagle Road, Fly Line Drive and below are currently under a pre-evacuation notice.

Original story:

The mandatory evacuation order of the Hamilton Creek neighborhood will remain in place Tuesday, Sept. 28, while firefighters and aircraft work to contain the Ptarmigan Fire burning on U.S. Forest Service land near Silverthorne.

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said Tuesday morning that the fire grew overnight, but he couldn’t provide an updated acreage. The latest update from the U.S. Forest Service on Monday night estimated that the fire was between 30 and 40 acres.

FitzSimons said the fire hasn’t reached any homes.

“It’s continuing to creep toward Hamilton Creek,” FitzSimons said. “It’s actually really odd; it’s creeping both north and south, so it’s not going east up and over.”

Two smoke plumes from the Ptarmigan Fire show the flames are spreading in opposite directions Tuesday, Sept. 28.
Meg Boyer/Summit Daily News

Pre-evacuation orders remain in place in the Angler Mountain Ranch and South Forty neighborhoods. FitzSimons said a pre-evacuation order has also been issued for Silverthorne Elementary School, though the school will operate as usual for now.

Officials have ordered a considerable amount of resources to combat the fire Tuesday, including three large air tankers, two single-engine air tankers, three helicopters and four hand crews. FitzSimons said officials believe it is still too dangerous for crews on the ground to engage the blaze, and firefighting operations will be primarily conducted through the air Tuesday. There are resources on the ground ready to step in if the fire continues to move toward residential areas.

“The public can expect quite the air show,” FitzSimons said. “… There is structure protection staged in those neighborhoods. There are six engines assigned to nothing but protecting homes.”

Officials will host two public meetings at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesday at Silverthorne Town Hall to provide updates for community members.

FitzSimons said there will also be an opportunity for residents in the Hamilton Creek neighborhood to temporarily return to their homes to pick up any important items they may have left behind while evacuating. When that will happen has yet to be determined. Once a time is set, evacuees will be required to visit Silverthorne Town Hall to be credentialed before making their way to the road closure point at the bottom of Hamilton Creek neighborhood.

Officials are asking community members to stay out of the area whenever possible so that roads are clear of traffic for police and firefighting resources. FitzSimons also urged residents with drones to keep them grounded so they don’t interfere with other aircraft working to contain the fire.

“We’re having a real problem with drones,” he said. “It’s illegal to fly drones over wildfires, and if drones are in the air, we can’t fly.”

Recreational trails in the area remain closed to the public.

Forest Service aims to gain support for prescribed burns in Roaring Fork Valley

With mega-fires starting to affect Colorado’s drought-stricken forests and home development continuing unabated on private lands next to the forests, federal officials are trying to earn public support for preventative measures.

The White River National Forest undertook four prescribed burns last spring that covered about 3,800 acres. U.S. Forest Service officials said Friday the work was beneficial but only a sliver of what is needed. The White River National Forest covers 2.3 million acres from Rifle to Summit County and Independence Pass to the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs.

“Part of the reason we have to do this, if you look back over the last 75 years, is Smokey the Bear has been pretty successful,” Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner said Friday. “We as a society have really suppressed a lot more fires. Now we’re seeing some of the challenges that come with that.”

Colorado had its three largest wildfires ever in 2020 and that didn’t include the Grizzly Creek Fire, which continues to bring consequences to Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the evidence is clear that public land management agencies need to be more aggressive about prescribed fire and beneficial management of natural fires, when appropriate.

“We’ve got to get people on board because we’re going to have fire,” Fitzwilliams said. “We’ve got to get going. I think there’s a little bit of urgency we’re all feeling. All you have to do is watch California and what we had in Colorado last year.”

While the Roaring Fork Valley has been spared from wildfire so far this year, patchy smoke through a good chunk of the summer is a reminder of how the West is burning. Climate change has intensified droughts that are weakening trees and making them more susceptible to disease and bugs. Will the growing threat of wildfires build public support for preventative action such as prescribed burns or spook people to the point they demand immediate extinguishing of any fire?

“We’ve got to do a better job of communicating and educating people about what the realities are,” Fitzwilliams said. “I wish we could go back in time and see how many fewer trees there were 100, 150 years ago, before we started putting out fires. We have more trees than ever was natural, yet we fall in love with every one of them, and we end up paying a price. We’ve got to figure that out.”

One of last year’s prescribed burns in the Roaring Fork Valley occurred in Collins Creek, rugged territory 9 miles north of Aspen. The drainage is north and upstream from the late George Stranahan’s Flying Dog Ranch on Woody Creek Road.

Dan Nielsen, a fuels specialist for the forest, was the firing boss for that project May 7. He directed the release of about 7,000 incendiary devices about the size of Ping-Pong balls from a helicopter. The devices were dropped about every 100 feet and started multiple small fires. Snow on the high ridges kept the fire contained.

Nielsen led a hike to the site Friday to show how the area looks four months later. The fire charred thickets of oak brush and serviceberry bushes dominate the dry, south-facing landscape between 7,500 and 9,000 feet in elevation in the Collins Creek drainage. Out of the 1,200-acre burn area, 800 to 900 acres actually were affected by fire, Nielsen said. Small aspen trees have already proliferated in the burn area along with grasses and new shoots of oak and serviceberry.

“This is the perfect result,” Nielsen said. “This is what we’re looking for.”

The duel purpose of the project was to improve wildlife habitat and create firebreaks. The area is critical winter range for deer and elk. Enhanced wildlife habitat and fuels reduction go hand-in-hand, Nielsen said.

“When you sit here all summer and deal with smoke from 1,000 miles away, it should make us all realize we can’t avoid this.” — Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest supervisor

It’s hard to see the effects of the fire until in the thick of the burn area. Then, charred trees pop into view and charred wood covers parts of the ground.

“The key is that was a low-intensity burn,” Nielsen said. “We’re not burning the nutrients out of the soil.”

The result is a mosaic on the landscape — areas where old brush burned and new vegetation is taking root, and patches where the old growth remained.

“It breaks up the continuity in case a wildfire comes in here,” Nielsen said. The area will likely be ripe for another burn in 10 or so years, he said.

Phil Nyland, wildlife biologist with the White River, said the Collins Creek project paid instant dividends for wildlife.

“In the next few growing seasons, even more browse will be available as shrubs continue to grow taller than the height of the snow,” he said via email. “Grass and flowering plants, which big game forage on in summer, are dormant or buried under the snow, so the woody stems of shrubs and trees are an important primary food source for elk and mule deer.”

Nyland said projects undertaken by the Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other partners would improve habitat for elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep and other native wildlife across 45,000 acres over a 10-year period.

Warner said there are five prescribed fire projects planned over the next two to three years along with another five mechanical treatments, where machines are used to thin trees and other vegetation in areas where prescribed fire isn’t an option. The planned projects will probably cover 6,000 to 8,000 acres, Warner said. It is a start, but the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District sprawls across more than 700,000 acres.

Fitzwilliams, who has held his post for nearly 12 years, said the public acceptance of prescribed burns and mechanical treatment has slowly increased during his tenure. He said treatments should occur on a broad landscape scale, not just on a few isolated projects.

“I think we’ve made some headway,” Fitzwilliams said. “When you sit here all summer and deal with smoke from 1,000 miles away, it should make us all realize we can’t avoid this. Let’s figure out how to manage it, even then there’s no guarantees.”

scondon@aspentimes.com

Wildfire cameras around Aspen appear effective but need time to prove worth

Jake Andersen, deputy chief of operations at the Aspen Fire Department, shows off live feeds Wednesday from cameras installed around Pitkin County connected to artificial intelligence that scan for wildfires 24/7.
Jason Auslander / The Aspen Times

An experimental system that monitors the Upper Roaring Fork Valley for wildfires has already detected one fire start and so far proved to be a worthwhile tool, an Aspen fire official said Wednesday.

However, while the system did detect the lightning strike near Lazy Glen at the end of July, passers-by reported the smoke before the warning system because of a glitch, and questions remain about whether the Aspen Fire Department can afford the technology going forward, said Jake Andersen, AFD’s deputy chief of operations.

“When this came up, we were like, ‘Of course, why would we not?’” Andersen said. “Think about it — I have four fire lookouts (I can monitor) from my office or from my pocket. I can pull over and check my phone if I get an alert.”

In July, Pitkin County commissioners approved the pilot program that allowed a Silicon Valley-based company called Pano AI to install two cameras each on four communications towers owned by the county. The cameras atop towers on Aspen Mountain, Jackrabbit at Snowmass, the Williams tower near Gerbazdale and on Upper Red Mountain were installed about a month ago.

The cost of the $50,000 project was donated to Aspen Fire by a local Red Mountain homeowner who has been active in local wildfire mitigation efforts.

The cameras provide 360-degree views of the surrounding wilderness every minute and run 24 hours a day, seven days a week until the end of the fire season in October or November. They work mostly during daylight hours because it is a visual-based system, though the cameras would be able to see flames of a fire at night, Andersen said.

Technicians at Pano’s facility in Northern California receive the visual information first and any alerts when the artificial intelligence system detects smoke or fire. Those technicians then verify whether the video has actually spotted a newly started wildfire, and send an alert to Aspen Fire if they determine it is a blaze, he said.

The system did spot a lightning strike-started fire near Lazy Glen at about 3:30 p.m. July 30, but alerts about the fire were delayed in coming from Pano and drivers on Highway 82 spotted the smoke first and called emergency dispatchers, Andersen said. The problem has since been corrected.

That fire was extinguished the next day thanks to rain that followed the lightning.

However, the incident underscores the experimental nature of the program, he said. Pano’s artificial intelligence system needs to continue to learn what smoke looks like in this area so it can continue to make improvements and provide alerts sooner. Once the artificial intelligence learns an area, it can see wildfire starts better than human eyes, Andersen said.

Another benefit provided by the cameras is nearly instantaneous access to pictures of backcountry areas. For example, Andersen said he received a report Tuesday of possible smoke near Buttermilk Ski Area, and was able to pull up a live view and determine no smoke was visible.

Aspen Fire crews still went and checked the area — they found an overheated vehicle — but the cameras provided valuable initial intelligence, he said.

“If I can open (my computer) up and see something huge, I can alert Grand Junction (pilots) and get air support there,” Andersen said. “We can start to make some of these strategic decisions right away.”

The Pano system allows fire officials to send pictures of the fire and geographical coordinates to pilots and others who need to know exactly where it’s located, he said.

Parker Lathrop, director of operations for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, used to do Andersen’s job until several months ago, and said the use of cameras to survey the backcountry is not new thanks to Aspen Skiing Co.-installed cameras atop each of the area’s four ski mountains.

“For years, that was my go-to,” Lathrop said.

The Skico cameras, however, take 10 minutes to provide a 360-degree view, while the newly installed cameras in Pitkin County provide the same view every minute, Andersen said.

The artificial intelligence component of the new technology is the real possible game-changer now, Lathrop said.

“I like the concept,” he said. “I want to see the product work, but I also don’t want to see fires. How it pans out (remains to be seen).”

One of the other concerns some area fire officials have had with the new system is privacy, Lathrop said. Some of the video from California played in Pano presentations showed people’s backyards, which spawned those concerns, he said.

Subsequent presentations have shown the same videos, but with people’s yards pixelated and unable to be seen, Lathrop said.

The cameras in Pitkin County are not in areas where people’s private property can be viewed, Andersen said.

At the end of the fire season. Aspen Fire officials will analyze the public benefits of the new system and decide whether they want to or can pay for it in the future. It’s not clear how much it might cost the fire district, and attempts to reach officials with Pano on Wednesday were not successful.

“It’s cool to be on the front end of this … and help it get better,” he said. “It makes fire services better.”

Crews zero in on small wildland fire near Lazy Glen in Roaring Fork Valley

An air tanker drops fire retardant on a wildland fire near the Lazy Glen community on Friday afternoon.
Courtesy of Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office

Fire crews worked a small wildland fire Friday in the Roaring Fork Valley near the Lazy Glen community and should have it completely out by Saturday evening, a fire official said Friday night.

The fire is on Bureau of Land Management property and is not easily accessible. A U.S. Forest Service ground crew is on scene but is waiting for weather to pass before they go back up Friday night, Jim Genung, fire management officer with the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, said about 6 p.m.

He said a lightning strike Thursday night in the area is the cause of the fire, but they could not find it when they went up in the evening. He said the fire “kicked up with the winds” that came through Friday afternoon. It has burned about a half-acre but was “taking on a good rain right now,” Genung said.

When the weather clears the ground crew will return to the burn area, and another team will join Saturday and there should be 10-12 federal firefighters on the scene, he said.

“Weather permitting, we should have it buttoned by (Saturday) evening,” Genung said.

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson said earlier Friday the fire is to the north of the Lazy Glen community (near mile marker 26 on Highway 82), a few hundred yards up the hill and burning in pinon and juniper trees. He said no structures are threatened and there are no evacuations.

“We’ve used two small air tankers and they’ve boxed it in, but the fire is going to be visible tonight and most of tomorrow depending on how much moisture we get,” Thompson said from the scene. “If you driving up Holland Hills and Lazy Glen, it’s in your face.”

Genung said the two single-engine air tankers were able to each make two drops and form a box around the fire.

The lightning that moved through with Thursday night’s storms caused four or five fires in the region, Genung said. He said crews worked Friday morning on a small fire west of the Grizzly Creek burn scar, and then other small fires in western Garfield County and on BLM land.

This is a developing story that will be updated.