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‘The only tool we have:’ CDOT turns to response strategies following multiple mudslides on I-70

Mudslides and debris flows over Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon are expected to continue for years to come with little to no possible mitigation solutions.
CDOT/Special to the Vail Daily

Over the past few weeks, mudslides and flash flood warnings have prompted continual closures of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon. A result of the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar, the steep slopes surrounding the interstate in the canyon have become increasingly susceptible to these large debris flows. And really, there’s not much anyone can do.

“We’ve all known that this risk of mudslides was here,” said David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest.

Immediately after the Grizzly Creek Fire, the Forest Service sent out a Burn Area Emergency Response team, also known as a BAER team, to assess damages and risk in the area as well as provide possible mitigation solutions.

What the team — which is comprised of specialists including hydrologists, botanists, ecologists, soil scientists and engineers — found was that many of the drainages in Glenwood Canyon burned severely. Couple that with the steepness of the slopes in the canyon, and it equals a higher risk of debris flow.

“The problem with the high-severity burn is that it cooks the soil,” Boyd said. “Soil normally is full of all kinds of living organisms, microorganisms, roots, seeds, those sorts of things, and if the fire burns really severely, it just kills all that.”

This severe burn also, according to Boyd, makes the soil more hydrophobic so the water isn’t absorbed into the soil — “it just comes right off.”

“The other challenge with that is reseeding isn’t going to take very well in those highly, severely burned areas,” Boyd said. “Most of Grizzly Creek, if you go up in the burned area, is recovering naturally; grasses and forbs in the area where it was brush, those are all coming back.”

In some areas of the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar where the burn was not as severe, grass and vegetation has started to regenerate naturally.
White River National Forest/Special to the Daily

Without this regeneration, these mudslides will continue to occur with little to no vegetation to hold back the debris. This is particularly true as summer precipitation — which often dumps a lot of rain in a small area over a short period of time — continues to cause these debris flows.

“For the next few years, mudslides will be a problem,” Boyd said. “Over time, it gets better as the fire recovers more. Eventually, these severely burned areas will start coming back.”

So, what the Forest Service can, and will continue to do, according to Boyd, is monitor the area and continue to look for opportunities to mitigate this risk.

Safety closures first

This map shows the burn severity across the Grizzly Creek Fire — 12% was marked as high severity burn, 43% as moderate, 33% was low and within the fire’s perimeter and 12% remained unburned.
White River National Forest/Special to the Daily

Instead, a lot of the mitigation efforts have been focused on these closures, which protect the safety of motorists on I-70.

“We’re talking about nature and nature’s process, that’s pretty tough to mitigate,” said Tracy Trulove, a Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson. “CDOT is always going to put safety at the top of the list for what we’re doing in the canyon.”

Earlier this year, CDOT completed several projects related to rock and debris flow in the canyon. Spending around $1.7 million in federal funding for emergency repairs, the department constructed a number of barriers intended to mitigate smaller sloughs of rock and debris and prevent scattering of smaller rocks into the roadway areas. This also included improvements and debris removal efforts along existing fences and barriers.

Even with these fences and precautions in place, it’s incredibly challenging to predict where the debris flows will occur.

In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey created a landslide hazard map that identified areas where there was a high likelihood for these larger debris flows. So far, this map had identified the three areas where debris flows have ran onto the highway as areas with a 40% to 100% chance of doing so. However, even with these models, it’s impossible to predict these occurrences.

“There’s just so many areas in that canyon that have the potential for debris flow,” Trulove said.

Not only are the flows difficult to predict, but the state of the slopes have created debris flows that would be hard for the fences to catch.

“It’s a lot of mud and water and a very soupy mix that’s coming down,” Trulove said. “So even with those barriers in place, you’re still going to get a decent amount of material that comes through.”

So far, the mudslides that have made their way onto the interstate have had minimal impacts to the road. According to Trulove, there has only been minimal damage to things like drains and some damage to the guardrail, which was already in “desperate need.” Most of the costs have been associated with cleanup operations and resources.

According to Victoria Graham, a spokesperson from Gov. Jared Polis’ office, the governor requested funds for improving I-70 in Glenwood Canyon in September 2020.

“The state has requested up to $10 million in federal funding and been approved for approximately $2.5 million in emergency repair funding, which is 100% reimbursable, and $2.8 million in permanent repairs, which is 80% reimbursable,” Graham wrote. “Additional funding to protect local community water supplies and infrastructure was passed during this last legislative session working with those communities, the state legislature and Department of Natural Resources.”

Matthew Inzeo, CDOT’s communication director, wrote in an email that the emergency repairs funding reimbursed “funds that were spent in the immediate response to the Grizzly Creek Fire last year,” which includes the improvements mentioned above.

According to Trulove, CDOT isn’t aware of any new money earmarked for continued mitigation.

In terms of the long-term revegetation work, that will fall under federal funding for the Forest Service. “In a recent call with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and key cabinet officials, Gov. Polis underscored the post-fire watershed and mudslide impacts,” Graham wrote.

Just this week, the Colorado Transportation Commission approved $238 million via Senate Bill 260 to address “critical statewide multimodal needs,” according to the press release. However, no improvements to I-70 in the canyon made the list. This is because, according to Trulove, transportation funding has been a challenge statewide and there are many roadways, including Glenwood Canyon before the fire, that require rockfall mitigation and resources.

“The Grizzly Creek burn scar has added another layer of complexity,” she said, adding that it also doesn’t help that “this burn scar is right over one of the major arteries in Colorado.”

‘The only tool we have’

CDOT crews make progress cleaning up the lower eastbound decks of Interstate 70 on Monday, June 28, near mile marker 120 after a mudslide swept down the cliffs in Glenwood Canyon in the area of the Grizzly Creek burn scar the day before.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Instead of mitigating risks, CDOT has been concerned with merely responding to these risks as they occur. Just this week, two separate flash flood warnings prompted the closure of the interstate through the canyon.

CDOT starts preparing once it receives a flash flood watch from the National Weather Service, sending out maintenance teams on standby at several closure locations along the highway.

And then, once the watch is upgraded to a warning, “when we get a warning, we’re moving to a safety closure for the canyon in an effort to not have vehicles in there when a potential debris flow happens,” Trulove said.

Of this response, Trulove said, “Right now that is really the only tool we have.”

In Eagle County, the Sheriff’s office is also watching for these warnings and closures, prompting its own response on Cottonwood Pass.

Alternative routes

One common alternative route when Glenwood Canyon closes is Cottonwood Pass, which has seen its fair share of accidents and delays over the years.
Adrian Hughes/Daily File Photo

Over the past few years, Cottonwood Pass, a local and scenic roadway, has become inundated with traffic as closures in Glenwood Canyon continue to increase. The roadway has seen its fair share of crashes, including a truck rollover earlier this summer.

Matt Koch, who has been an Eagle County resident for 15 years, drives Cottonwood Pass every day in the summer to get to his job in Garfield County. However, over the past few years, closures on I-70 have led to an influx of “weekend warriors and tourists,” on the roadway, Koch said.

“Basically, as soon as the EC Alert goes out that there’s a flash flood watch, I basically have to leave work and jump in my car and head home,” Koch said. “I’m in the very fortunate position that my boss is very understanding and they let me leave. I think about the guy or gal who doesn’t have that luxury; they have to be there until the job is done.”

This can often lead to locals being stranded and unable to get home from work.

“Many locals work and live on both sides of Cottonwood Pass, making it a very important route for them to utilize when the Canyon is closed,” wrote John Harris, from the Eagle County Road and Bridge department, in an email. “We are concerned about the viability of the route and passenger safety with increased traffic. Cottonwood Pass is not designed to handle a large volume of traffic.”

This situation has led the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office — in partnership with the town of Gypsum and Eagle County Road and Bridge — to create an incident management plan. In the event that CDOT closes I-70, the Sheriff’s Office will send out deputies to both sides of the pass where they will manage traffic until Eagle County Road and Bridge arrives and takes over management. In managing traffic, those stationed are slowing traffic and making sure those commercial vehicles and others over 35-feet in length are not driving over the pass.

“Narrow sections, steep grades and sharp curves make it difficult to handle the traffic during closures without the boots-on-the-ground traffic control the county and its partners have been providing,” Harris wrote.

The incident plan also includes investing in a number of warning and educational signs for out-of-state visitors and drivers that take on the pass.

It’s worth noting that CDOT specifically asks motorists not to use Cottonwood Pass as well as Hagerman Pass, Eagle/Thomasville Road or other county or Forest Service roads in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties as a detour — although GPS routing systems will tell drivers to use those roads. Instead, the department recommends a northern alternate route using Colorado Highway 9, US Highway 40 and Colorado Highway 13. Really, there’s no good way around the closures.

Koch has noted these interventions and said that while they are helping — “I haven’t gotten stuck yet” — it’s not enough. In a letter to the Vail Daily, Koch referred to the road as “ill-prepared and ill-equipped.”

On the phone, Koch noted that guardrails and metering could help improve the drive and prevent accidents.

“I don’t think that Cottonwood should be a viable alternative route. I think it should remain quiet and sleepy for the ranchers as a scenic byway,” he said.

According to Harris, the county has made some road surface improvements and has “been in discussions on different levels of improvements and costs associated with them.” However, at this time, there is no planned funding to help aid the project.

Koch has been reaching out to local and state representatives to try and raise some noise about the pass, and it’s need — as well as I-70’s need — for repairs and financial investments.

“I know it’s an astronomical amount of money, but when you start stacking that against all the commerce that gets stopped and the trickle down of having 70 closed for a day or a couple of hours. The supply chain just gets incredibly disrupted and it’s not just Coloradans, it’s everywhere, it’s national,” he said. “I would encourage the other travelers to speak up and contact their representatives, and if we unify and make our voices heard, action will hopefully be taken.”

Hazy skies in area not from Colorado fires

A hazy view Monday morning looking east toward thee Continental Divide from Snowmass Village. The unclear skies could continue into mid-week.
David Krause / The Aspen Times
AIR QUALITY ADVISORY

UPDATE: The state’s public health department extended an air quality healthy advisory into Wednesday morning for much of northern and central Colorado, including Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties because of the wildfire smoke. The advisory, which was first issued Monday, remains in effect until 9 a.m. Wednesday, and those who have heart disease, respiratory illnesses, the very young and elderly are encouraged to stay inside when the smoke is thick. For more information, go to pitkinemergency.org.

Wildfires are raging across the Northwest, aided by winds of a high pressure system that is bringing the smoke from those fires to Colorado.

The result is hazy skies over Pitkin and Eagle counties and western Colorado that are likely to continue for the next few days.

A massive heatwave hit the Northwest in late June, breaking records and contributing to hundreds of deaths in the U.S. and Canada. Wildfires began to spark across the region in the dry and windy days that followed.

As of Sunday afternoon, the Bootleg Fire in Oregon had grown to more than 140,000 acres, an area of about 220 square miles. The Dry Gulch Fire in Washington is 46,352 acres, the Snake River Complex Fire in Idaho is more than 50,000 acres, the Robertson Draw Fire on the Wyoming/Montana border is at about 30,000 acres and the MY Complex Fire in Montana is more than 24,000 acres.

Farther to the Northwest, in Canada, more than 40 fires started burning across British Columbia in late June, and by July 8, “that number climbed to more than 200 active fires across the Canadian province, of which 15 were considered “wildfires of note” (especially large fires, or fires that threaten public safety),” NASA reported July 8.

Many of those fires, along with the roughly 35 other smaller fires in Oregon, Idaho and Montana, all are burning in areas upwind of Colorado.

Could continue into mid-week

Dennis Phillips with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction said the winds are likely to continue bringing smoke into the area for the next few days.

“We have high pressure that’s sitting over southern Nevada, so we have this big clockwise rotation over the Pacific Northwest, right over Wyoming and into Colorado,” Phillips said. “It might be stuck there into mid-week.”

The view into Aspen from Owl Creek Road is hazy on Monday due to smoke-filled skies from major fires burning in the northwest.
David Krause/The Aspen Times

Phillips said by next weekend, the area could be seeing clearer skies.

“It looks like there’s southwest winds setting up late this week into next weekend, which would send that smoke into Canada, so there might be a reprieve,” he said.

A public information officer working the Sylvan Fire in Eagle County on Sunday confirmed smoke from that fire is not affecting air quality at this time, as that fire is producing very little smoke.

The fires in the Northwest are contributing to “99 percent” of the haze in the area, Phillips said.

That other 1% of haze in the area, Phillips said, could be the Morgan Creek Fire burning in Routt County, which was first reported Saturday and quickly grew to more than 1,900 acres, or 3 square miles.

Hutson Vann, the lead PIO on the Morgan Creek Fire, said a temperature inversion Sunday prevented the fire from sharing much smoke with neighboring areas during the day, but smoke could pick up in the evening.

The Morgan Creek Fire started Friday, July 9, in the area of Hinman Lake off Seedhouse Road in North Routt County.
Bryce Martin/Steamboat Pilot & Today

“Today, you look out and you’re not going to see a big plume or column, but we should start to see a little more smoke,” he said.

Vann said the southeastern section of the Morgan Creek Fire reached the burn scar from the Middle Fork Fire of last summer and stopped its progression in that area.

“It checked — that means it didn’t progress — because those fuels were previously consumed,” Vann said. “So that’s a positive for this fire.”

Closures issued Sunday

Vann said by the time the National Forest was able to issue closures in Routt and Jackson Counties, many people were still in those areas recreating. Those people are now being urged to leave. The closures went into effect Sunday.

Roughly, the closed area goes from the Routt National Forest boundary on the west near Clark in Routt County; north to Big Agnes Mountain; east over the Continental Divide to the National Forest boundary in Jackson County near Red Canyon; and south to Mount Ethel.

Closures include a large section in the middle of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, a section of the Continental Divide Trail, all Forest Service recreation sites along the Seedhouse corridor, including campgrounds, trailheads and the Seedhouse Guard Station. Forest Road 400 is closed where County Road 64 enters National Forest. Forest Roads 440, 442 and their associated spur roads also are closed.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the Dry Gulch Fire is in Washington.

As wildfires get worse, so are firefighter shortages: Climate change, low pay aren’t helping

The Morgan Creek Fire started Friday, July 9, in the area of Hinman Lake off Seedhouse Road in North Routt County. (Photo by Bryce Martin)

Right now across Colorado, more than a thousand federal firefighters are working to contain blazes burning through tens of thousands of acres of brush, grass and timber.

None of the Forest Service workers battling these fires are actually considered firefighters — on paper. Their job titles are forestry or range technicians.

Most of these kinds of firefighters are temporary employees who only work through the summer. Their starting pay is around $13 an hour, much lower than they’d make at a local, state or private fire department.

Just as climate change is making fire seasons longer — with more intense blazes — the federal firefighting force faces staffing shortages and low morale. These problems have lingered for years, but there is some brewing momentum to increase pay and make other changes to address the shortages.

“It’s just a convenient bureaucratic sidestep of just labeling us forestry technicians so that they don’t have to give us the same benefits,” said Chris Ives, a squad leader for a hotshot crew in the San Juan National Forest near Durango in southwestern Colorado.

This is Ives’ 10th season with the Forest Service. It took him six years to get a permanent job that comes with year-round health insurance. Despite not carrying the label and pay of a firefighter, Ives estimates he spends 80% of his time fighting fires or on duties directly related to firefighting.

President Joe Biden has called federal firefighter pay “ridiculously low” and pledged to increase it. But some say it would still be too low.

At a video meeting with governors June 30, he said the U.S. is late to the game and must act fast.

“We’re remembering the horrific scenes from last year,” he said. “Orange skies that looked like end of days. Smoke and ash that made the air dangerous to breathe. More than 10 million acres burned. Billions of dollars in economic damage.”

The Biden administration announced it will use bonuses and incentives to boost firefighter pay to at least $15 an hour. Administration officials say they also will allow seasonal employees to work longer and train and equip more federal workers and military personnel to allow for surge capacity when needed.

Biden also pledged to work with lawmakers to create a permanent federal firefighting force.

Some firefighters say $15 an hour is still too low. Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group representing federal firefighters, said the moves were a good first step, but they want lawmakers to make long-term fixes.

Firefighters gather and have a bite to eat at the Hideaway Ranch on Routt County Road 16 while battling the Muddy Slide Fire in June. (Photo by John F. Russell)

CPR News spoke to a half-dozen U.S. Forest Service employees like Ives who have helped fight some of the country’s largest, most dangerous fires.

They say low pay and other labor issues have led to the staffing shortages in Colorado and other wildfire-prone states like California, Oregon and Washington. A search on USA Jobs, the federal government’s primary job site, regularly shows about 150 openings for forestry and range technicians across the country.

The shortage means firefighters are exhausted, and their mental health is suffering.

Ives said the gaps have to be filled by existing forestry workers who are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. The extra strain takes a toll on their mental health and personal lives.

“Not being able to take time off unless it’s a funeral or a wedding and just having that every year just gets a little more and more tiring and taxing on your psyche,” he said.

Many local and state fire departments have mental health programs designed to address stressors specific to a career in firefighting. The Forest Service doesn’t, said Ben Elkind, a smokejumper stationed in Oregon.

“You have real trauma, and they’re not addressing that in any meaningful way,” he said.

Forest Service officials declined an interview request. In a written statement, a spokesperson said the service maintains a “robust and highly capable workforce,” but acknowledged that uncompetitive federal wages have led to high turnover and low recruitment.

A crew of wildland firefighters from various agencies hikes into the east side of the Middle Fork Fire last fall to perform structure assessments and prepare contingency fire line in the event fire moved toward the Mad Creek Trailhead. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

Firefighters say the low pay is worsened by high housing costs in fire-prone areas where they’re often stationed.

That includes tourist spots and resort towns near national forests with million-dollar homes.

“I’d say maybe a quarter of our crew are living out of the backs of their trucks or camping out,” Ives said.

Ben McClane, who leads a wildfire crew based in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington, said firefighters who aren’t camping or living out of their vehicles often find housing in other residents’ basements.

“It’s almost like you’re hoping for charity from the local community,” McClane said.

All of the firefighters CPR News spoke to said similar things. Most had spent time living in their cars or trucks. One woman working for the U.S. Forest Service in southwestern Colorado, who didn’t want to use her name out of fear it would upset her supervisors, said she lives in an insulated shed because it’s the only shelter she can afford.

Stephen Pyne, a former wildland firefighter who teaches courses on fire and fire history at Arizona State University, said the Forest Service has long struggled with staffing for what used to be a seasonal-only occupation.

“They didn’t want to hire people full-time and they only wanted them when they needed them,” he said.

These days, the U.S. wildfire season is nearly year-long. Pyne said it’s like the federal government is fighting 2021 fires with a 1951 staffing mindset.

He says the Forest Service and other federal land agencies face many of the same labor challenges in other sectors.

“It’s the gig economy,” he said. “You’ve got people who are working for relatively low wages, seasonal, very little career advancement for many of them. That sounds like a lot of unhappy workers in today’s economy.”

Many people whose lives and property are at risk count on federal firefighters.

David Schulman has lived in the forested area near Vail and Eagle for 20 years. On a recent weekday, he and a friend fixed a gate in the front of his ranch. It was one of the last houses accessible before emergency vehicles blocked the road, because in the forest near his ranch, the Sylvan Fire was burning.

Schulman’s experience could be a sign of the increased need for firefighters during an era of climate change.

“None of this is new for me,” he said,” but having your house under imminent threat to where you could see the flames? That’s something I can do without.”

Most of the firefighters battling the blazes in the national forest behind Shulman’s ranch would make more money if they took an entry-level job with the local fire department in Eagle, population 6,500.

If the federal workers left for the fire department in Denver, most would more than double their pay.

The Era of Megafires

The East Troublesome Fire photographed on Oct. 20, 2020 by Brad White, fire chief of the Grand Fire Protection District in Granby.

Colorado’s scariest wildfire in 2020 was not its largest. East Troublesome shocked because of its sprint and then its leap. It grew by 87,000 acres in a fiery dash across the headwaters of the Colorado River and past Grand Lake, most of that in just a couple hours. Smoke plumes rose 40,000 feet. The winds, variously estimated at 50 to 100 mph, were strong enough to bend over lodgepole pines.

Then embers vaulted across two miles of treeless tundra at the Continental Divide, raining into the Estes Valley, at the eastern gate to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Nothing like this had ever occurred in modern Colorado history.

Eight months later, Colorado again had something extraordinary, a record-smashing heat wave in mid-June. Two Colorado towns, Alamosa and Cortez, had six consecutive days of record high temperatures. Leadville, Grand Lake, Dillon and Del Norte had five straight days of record highs. In Vail, one town employee reported having gone to South Carolina to see a son — and being shocked to find the heat was no worse than that of Eagle County.

Both phenomena — the East Troublesome Fire and the heat dome of June — are likely manifestations of the warming climate.

It’s going to get worse, warn climate scientists, much worse. Temperatures will rise. Wildfires will become larger, more unpredictable. Welcome to the age of megafires.

IN CALIFORNIA’S FOOTSTEPS

Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak

California has been getting megafires and, inevitably, so will Colorado, says Mark Novak, the Vail fire chief. When that happens — most likely in the next 10 to 15 years, he believes — Colorado will look back on East Troublesome and other fires during the shocking 2020 fire season as, well, not so shocking.

“I can’t tell you exactly at what point,” says Novak, “but we will look back and say, ‘Remember when Pine Gulch (a 2020 fire near Grand Junction) and East Troublesome seemed like a really big fire?’”

Before arriving in Vail in 2014, Novak saw a progression during his 30-year career on the West Coast.

“What we’re seeing today in Colorado is very similar to what California was seeing in the early years of the 2000s, from 2003 to 2007,” says Novak. “I believe that in 10 to 15 years we will see the same type of fire that California was seeing in 2017, 2018 and 2020. I think that (East Troublesome) was just the first case of what we will see in the future.”

In November, just weeks after the East Troublesome made its run, Novak told Vail Town Council members their community can someday expect something similar.

“I am here to tell you that fire burned extremely well and extremely fast through every fuel type,” he said. “It burned literally through aspen groves, it burned through beetle kill, it burned through green stands, it burned through sage (brush). It burned through farmers’ fields that were stubble. This was not necessarily a beetle-kill problem,” he said. “We should not rationalize that this kind of fire would not occur in Vail.”

“You scare me to death every time you speak,” a town council member responded.

Colorado, like California, has been seeing progressively larger fires, but on a different order of magnitude.

As Colorado’s ski areas came of age after World War II, fires were rare. There were fires, such as the one in 1994 west of Glenwood Springs that killed 14 firefighters amid the pinyon and juniper covered hillsides of Storm King Mountain. But in Vail, Aspen and other headwater communities, wildfires were so distant that little attention was paid to flammability of buildings. In Vail, shake shingles were required. In Summit County, regulations discouraged removal of trees.

Fires in the 21st century have been larger, more frequent and more destructive.

The year 2002 was a harbinger. A dry winter was followed by a warm and windy spring. In early June, three wildfires broke out almost instantaneously, one of them the Coal Seam Fire in Glenwood Springs. Surveying the state’s forests by planes that first Sunday, Colorado’s governor, Bill Owens, solemnly told reporters, “All of Colorado is on fire.”

The governor was widely ridiculed, but since then most of the state has been on fire. Most damaging were blazes in the foothills along the Front Range urban corridor. The Fourmile Canyon fire west of Boulder destroyed 172 homes and other structures in 2010, the most destructive wildfire to that time. Then came 2012, hot and dry. High Park Fire killed one person and destroyed 248 homes west of Fort Collins. Days later, the Waldo Canyon fire killed two people and destroyed 346 homes on the outskirts of Colorado Springs.

Flames have begun to singe Aspen, Vail and other ski towns. In 2018, the Lake Christine Fire in the El Jebel-Basalt area incinerated 12,588 acres and nearly shut down electrical deliveries to Aspen during the Fourth of July weekend. Another fire, Grizzly Creek, shut down Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon for almost six weeks in 2020.

The Sylvan Fire in June 2021. Vail Daily

Fires covered fewer than 100,00 acres during the decade of the 1970s. Just last year, 650,000 acres burned in Colorado (and another 176,000-acre fire burned in a border-straddling fire that was mostly in Wyoming).

California covers a third again more ground than Colorado. But the area burned last year, 4.4 million acres, was six times that of Colorado.

Vail’s Novak began his career fighting fires in the San Diego area in 1984. At the time, fires of 5,000 to 10,000 to acres were considered big.

In 1990, he relocated to the Lake Tahoe Basin, on the California-Nevada border. The year 2007 was a pivotal one. One of the houses he had grown up in Southern California burned. At Tahoe, a major fire called Angora burned 250 houses within four hours. One of his children’s teachers lost her home, as did firefighters and police officers. Wildfire, more than before, had become personal to Novak.

Angora provoked a shift in attitudes in the Tahoe Basin. Forest thinning, which had been adamantly opposed, became more accepted. That fire now doesn’t make California’s top lists based on size, destruction or deaths. The largest to date was 2020’s August Complex fire, which covered more than a million acres, followed by the Mendocino Complex fire of July 2018 that burned 459,000 acres. Deadliest was later that year. The Camp infero killed 88 people at Paradise. Many others have killed 10, 15 or 25 at a time.

HOT DRY & OFF THE CHARTS

Fire in Colorado’s Rockies, as in California’s Sierra Nevada, has always been a part of forest ecosystems.

The frequency varies depending upon vegetation. In the foothills above the Front Range urban corridor, forests of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir evolved with low-intensity, fast-moving fires that occurred every few decades.

On the Western Slope, in places like Aspen and Vail, the fires have historically occurred every 120 to 250 years. Frequency increases in the lower-elevation pinyon and juniper forests. Intervals in the higher-elevation spruce and fir forests lengthen to around 400 years,

Fires are natural. Even big fires are natural, as charcoal collected from the mud of lakes and the scares of trees demonstrate. What we see now is not natural.

It begins with rising temperatures. The Colorado River Basin—including Aspen and Vail and the location of the East Troublesome Fire—have warmed 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 2000 as compared to the 20th century average. This, according to a report by Western Water Assessment, is likely warmer than at any time in the past 2,000 years.

A 2009 paper by Connie Woodhouse, of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and others compared the 21st Century warming with a notably warm period of 1,000 years ago. During that period from 900 to 1300 AD, the Northern Hemisphere was warmer than all but the most recent decades. Drought was a companion. The worst 10-year period was 1146 to 1155. That, perhaps not incidentally, was about the time the ancestral Pueblo – as the Anasazi are now more commonly called—began emigrating from the Four Corners area.

Mike Metcalf, an archaeologist based in Eagle, takes the long view. His work has examined human habitation of Colorado and other Western states since the glaciers rapidly retreated 13,500 years ago. “Somebody who has studied climate tends to be skeptical of simplistic explanations,” he says. “There are so many things, so many variables that control climate.”

But the warming and consequent aridification of the last few decades defy conventional explanations. “The amount of drought in the West is off the charts,” says Metcalf.

A study published in 2020 in the journal Science concluded that climate change has made drought conditions 46% worse between 2000 and 2018.

Drought, as conventionally understood, no longer serves a useful purpose in describing what is being measured. Instead, some are using the word “aridification.” The effect can be seen in the reduced runoffs of the Colorado River into Lake Powell. The river flowed 543,000 acre-feet this year, compared to the May average of 2.34 million acre-feet since Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966. In 2020, the winter snowpack was actually pretty good, but the runoff was subpar. This year, with drying soils sopping up greater amounts of moisture, the fast-falling levels in the giant reservoirs in Utah, Arizona and Nevada have become a national story. As Metcalf points out, the trends just keep accelerating.

Now comes new evidence that high-elevation forests in Colorado since 2000 have burned at a rate greater than at any time in the past 2,000 years. To draw this conclusion, the University of Montana’s Philip Higuera, a fire ecologist, and two colleagues waded into the work of paleoecologists who had plumbed the depths of 20 lakes to document the fire history.

Twelve of the lakes were in the Park Range near Steamboat Springs. Others lakes were on the southeast side of Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park.

Comparing the fire record of recent years with that 2,000-year history, Higuera and his co-authors, the University of Wyoming’s Bryan Shuman and University of Montana doctoral candidate Kyra Wolf came up with a startling conclusion: The frequency of fire in high-elevation forest has shrunk from once every 230 years on average in the last two millennia to about 120 years during the current century.

Warm, dry conditions provide the overarching cause of increased burning in high-elevation forests.

“It isn’t unexpected to have more fire as temperatures rise,” said Wolf, the co-author. “Our records show that fire tracked past variations in climate just as it does today. What’s striking is that temperatures and correspondingly fire are now exceeding the range that these forests have coped with for thousands of years—largely as a result of human-caused climate change.”

This wasn’t necessarily unexpected, although the timing may be. For decades, scientists have predicted that climate warming will increase wildfire activity in high-elevation forests beyond the historical range of experience, said Higuera—who spoke in March at a session sponsored by Carbondale’s Wilderness Workshop.

“It’s sobering to see that it’s clearly happening, and early in the 21st century—not in 2050, not in 2075, but in 2020,” he said.

VERY LIMITED TOOL BOX

We don’t know exactly how hot it will get. That’s partly because we don’t know whether the atmospheric pollution can be bent down. The rate of accumulating carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, has not abated in the 21st century even as the science around the risk has solidified.

We’re polluting the sky as if there were no tomorrow. The observatory located at an elevation of 11,135 feet at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa has documented the pollution of carbon dioxide. CO2 levels in 1958 stood at 320 parts per million, a relatively modest increase from pre-industrial times. In 2013 the levels surpassed 400 ppm This year its hit 420.

The East Troublesome Fire photographed on Oct. 20, 2020 by Brad White, fire chief of the Grand Fire Protection District in Granby.

Staying in this fast lane, what temperatures will that produce in Aspen, Vail and other ski towns in Colorado? A study expected to be issued later in July will put a more definitive picture of that future heating in headwater communities.

A 2016 study along the northern Front Range by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization delivers a glimpse of that hotter future. Fourteen days with temperatures greater than 80 degrees were recorded during the late 20th Century at a site in the foothills west of Boulder comparable in elevation to Aspen and Vail. This is projected to more than double in the next decade or two. By the time today’s toddlers reach retirement age, there will be 100 days.

“We will be hotter and we will be drier,” says Stephen Saunders, a former undersecretary in the Department of the Interior who was the lead author of that study. “If you have increased temperature and the same amount of precipitation, you will indeed be drier.”

That observation is borne out last week by a PowerPoint presentation by Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist. The first slide shows standardized precipitation index for Colorado since 1900. There are periods of wet and periods of dry—including during the 21st century. But the standardized evaporation-transpiration chart—transpiration is what a plant “exhales” in response to heat—tells a very different story during the 21st century. There are no peaks in the 21st century; only valleys of drought. The warming atmosphere is absorbing moisture from the ground and from vegetation.

Measurements conducted by federal agencies at the Garfield County Airport in Rifle, on Hardscrabble Mountain near Eagle and in Summit County bear this out. One measure of the dryness, called the thousand-hour test, showed the moisture content in wood on Harscrabble dropping from 12% on June 1 to just 8% at mid-month. “From a wildfire behavior standpoint, you don’t necessarily like to see 8%,” said Ryan Hughes, a fuels specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. Five days later after that measurement, the Sylvan Lake fire broke out south of Eagle.

A firefighter chops down a burning tree while working the Sylvan Fire outside of Eagle in June. InciWeb.NWCG.gov

Tom Veblen, now a professor emeritus of forest ecology at the University of Colorado Boulder, has studied wildfires in Colorado from almost every angle: tree rings, lake deposits, journals of explorers and 19th century newspaper accounts. We know 1847 was a fiery year, and so was 1851. Also 1879, the year that Vail’s Back Bowls became mostly treeless, the result supposedly of “spite” fires set by Ute Indians, although the evidence is lacking, he says. It was a dry year, the only time fires in high-elevation forests spread, and fires and prospectors were everywhere—including, at that point, in the hamlet that soon became Aspen.

What annoys Veblen most is the phrase “healthy forests.” The metaphor, contained in the title of a 2004 federal law, powerfully draws on an analogy to human health. It also misleads in the context of high-elevation forests, says Veblen. It was also misused, he says, to characterize fires that were burned by the East Troublesome Fire.

Areas covered by East Troublesome included large swaths of trees killed by bark beetles during an epidemic of the last 25 years. If bark beetles always have been in a fandango with forests, they came on particularly strong with rising temperatures and drought in the 21st century. The argument has been made that those trees killed by beetles need to be removed, to abate fire danger. Scientific studies in the last decade don’t leave that idea standing. One of them, by Hart and colleagues in 2015, found that prior beetle kill is not causing in increase in the extent or severity of fires of Western states.

“The fuels are the needles,” explains Veblen. “Once needles turn (red) and fall to the ground, to the forest floor, we actually have a decline in the ability of fires to spread through the crowns, through the canopy of the forest,” he says.

“What we are seeing is an increase in fire, yes, and an increase in bark beetle activity, both of which are driven by climate change, both driven by warmer conditions.

“Within the research community and also within the fire management community over the last 5 to 10 years there has been a greater realization how all of those changes are being driven by climate change,” he says. “But there is still a tendency to hold onto some of the old narrative.”

Thinning of forests, he says, has little value except in areas adjacent to communities and structures. “The people in the fire mitigation business are very motivated to use the tools they have, but those tools are very, very limited.”

HEAT DOMES AND CLIMATE CHANGE

There’s no escaping the rising temperatures. If the atmospheric emissions ended tomorrow, temperatures will continue rising for decades. “That is baked into our system,” says Veblen.

“It’s just going to get hotter,” says Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Udall co-authored a 2016 study that concluded roughly half of the “drought” in Colorado River Basin was explained by heat.

Colorado was hot last August when the Cameron Peak Fire broke out in the Medicine Bow Range, north of Rocky Mountain National Park. Another fire, the Williams Fork, broke out about the same time in the area north of the Eisenhower Tunnel. For a time, those in Winter Park and Fraser worried that the fire might sweep across the Vasquez Range and make a run on their communities.

Trees burn in the Cameron Peak Fire, Near Red Feather Lakes, in the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forest, summer 2020. Writers on the Range

Another heat wave engulfed Colorado last September, if nowhere near as intense as those of June, either in the Southwest or in the Pacific Northwest.

“Increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves are where probably the most robust connection exists between a warming climate and extreme weather,” says Schumacher, the state climatologist. “Numerous studies of heat waves in different parts of the world have shown that they have become much more likely. It takes a particular weather pattern to set up for something like this to happen (in this case, the very strong high pressure or heat dome), but all indications are that these situations are made more likely by climate change.”

Writing in the New York Times last week, former Roaring Fork Valley resident Susan Joy Hassol made the same point in an essay co-authored with climate scientist Michael Mann. “Record-breaking hot months are occurring five times more often than would be expected without global warming,” they wrote.

In Colorado, this shift in Colorado seems to be playing out by extending the “hot season,” says Schumacher.

The East Troublesome fits in with that pattern of lengthening wildfire season, 75 days longer than in the 1970s. It broke out on Oct. 14, the last day of the first rifle-hunting season. It spread somewhat slowly from a remote area between Kremmling and Grand Lake for almost a week. Then, on Oct. 20, came the winds, hot and fast, by some estimates 100 mph. It’s likely a miracle that only two lives were lost that

evening, those of two elderly people who had chosen to shelter in place.

“When you get fire behavior like that, there’s not a whole lot you can do to stop it,” said one firefighter. “That’s equivalent to trying to do something with a Category 5 hurricane.”

The wind and the heat picked up twigs, needles and pine cones and lofted them across the Continental Divide. Grand Lake, at the west entrance, escaped serious damage, likely the result of mitigation work done over the last decade. But lodgepole pine near the entrance to the national park just a few miles away testify to the heat and the winds, drooping like spaghetti.

Estes Park itself appeared sure to go up in flames as both the Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires approached. Sharon Brubaker, among the 6,700 residents of the community, didn’t wait to find out. She loaded her 2-year-old grandson into her car and fled, despite fears of another threat: COVID-19. “It was a gut reaction,” said Brubaker. “I looked at the sky and I knew that I needed to get out of here.”

Novak, the fire chief in Vail, had been working the Cameron Peak, helping defend homes. When the flames came roaring at them, they abandoned the effort. That, he says, is the philosophy of firefighters in Vail and elsewhere. They will prep and leave, not stay and defend.

Later, talking to his town council, Novak emphasized that Vail could easily see the same confluence of weather that caused East Troublesome’s extreme fire behavior. A fire starting in Eagle or Gypsum could roar up the valley through Vail and across Vail Pass into Summit County. That’s what happens in megafires—or a gigafire, as California’s first million-acre fire has been called.

Paul Cada helped protect the YMCA of the Rockies near Estes Park as the East Troiublesome fire roared in. “I saw what extreme fire looks like when it was coming into Estes Park,” he says.

Paul Cada, the wildland program manger in Vail, says the recently completed attainable housing complex in Vail was built under the town’s building and landscaping code designed to make homes and businesses less vulnerable to wildfires. Allen Best

Since 2014, Cada has worked in Vail as the town’s wildland program manager. It has been his job very fundamentally to prepare Vail for fire.

Vail, like other mountain communities, has evolved what it considers a mountain aesthetic. Wooden shake shingles, long a manifestation of that aesthetic, were banned on new housing in 2007. In 2020, the town adopted a new wildfire plan. Newer building codes require masonry exteriors and frown on decks that could be ignired by embers thrown from a mile away, as occurred in East Troublesome.

Some changes have been painful, facing opposition. One of them significantly discourages use of vegetation amid houses, rows of trees—that might catch on fire. Houses need strong fire-resistant berths of 30 to 60 feet.

A former Forest Service ranger likened Vail’s response at one time of wanting to fire-proof the forest so that houses could be put amid the trees. Now, there’s a new approach—one that doesn’t totally preclude fire, but can improve the odds.

“You don’t necessarily have to control extreme fire behavior to prevent significant loss to a community,” he says. “What you do need to do is prepare the community for that, and that’s really the approach we are taking in Vail. We are not necessarily able to stop or even control the extreme fire behavior that we will likely see one day. It’s about making sure our community is prepared to respond to it when it happens but also be able to bounce back as quickly as possible.”

Vail has been aggressively trying to reduce fire risk along its flanks as well as in its subdivisions. Even so, both Cada and Nowak emphasize the limits of their work. It will not preclude extreme fires. The right combination of hot days and drought —well, that’s when megafires happen.

Jerry Fedrizzi and his wife, Jan, have taken the onus of personal responsibility to heart. They grew up in Glenwood Springs, have lived in Eagle since 1968, but have a cabin at about the 8,300-foot elevation above Glenwood Springs. The days of 30 below in Eagle have become distant memories, he said on a hot June day while describing his continued work to remove vegetation from around their cabin. A fire official who studied their work gave them a 90% favorable rating, he reported proudly.

The temperature in Eagle was predicted to hit 97 degrees the next day, an unprecedented mark, and the wind was “just awful,” he said.

Not one prone to despair, Fedrizzi was nonetheless troubled. “It’s grim,” he said, “and I don’t know what will happen in the next 10 to 20 years.”

Sylvan Fire closure area reduced by White River National Forest

The White River National Forest has reduced the Sylvan Fire Forest Closure as fire and firefighting activity lessens, but officials stress the need for the public to drive slowly and respect the continuing closures.

The areas remaining in the closure include the areas within the Sylvan Fire perimeter and several roads and trails leading into the burned area.

The specific roads continuing to be closed are National Forest System Road 414 (Brush – Gypsum Road), NFSR 417 (Leeman Gulch), NFSR 431 (Powerline Road), NFSR 431.1 N (Crooked Creek Pass Spur). The trails still closed are the Mount Thomas Trail (1870) from the intersection with Red Creek Trail (1868) east to the trailhead intersection with NFSR 431.1N, and Antones Trail (1871).

Areas now open include NFSR 400 (Eagle-Thomasville), NFSR 416 (Gypsum Creek), and the Hardscrabble/Seven Hermits trail system.

“Please be aware that firefighters may be operating on or near roads around the Sylvan Fire that are also now open to the public,” said Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis. “Firefighters, trucks and heavy equipment may be entering roads and may be parked on or near roads. Please respect the safety of firefighters and drive slowly.”

East Brush Creek and the Yeoman and Fulford areas were not part of the previous closure and continue to be open. The trails east of NFSR 415 continue to be open (Nolan Lake, New York Mountain and Squaw Creek).

“The burned areas remain closed,” Veldhuis said. “Firefighters continue to work in these areas, and it is not safe for the public to enter them. Areas may still see active fire behavior, and there are fire-weakened trees and unstable soils.”

The closure order and map are available at www.fs.usda.gov/whiteriver. Information about the Sylvan Lake Fire is available at https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/7562/ and on Facebook @SylvanFireInformation.

Sylvan Lake Campground is managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. It remains closed because it continues to be used as a base for the fire team and aerial operations, but is not part of this specific National Forest System lands closure.

Type 1 Incident team preps to hand off Sylvan Fire management to local crews, containment at 50%

11:30 a.m. update: With containment reaching 50% on the Sylvan fire, the current Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Team is preparing to transition the management of the fire back to local crews by Saturday evening.

Before the new team takes over, the 425 personnel on site have plans to continue building containment of the wildfire, which remains just around 6-square miles in size. By Saturday, the hope is to scale back everything, according to public information officer Tracy LeClair.

About a quarter of an inch of rain fell on the fire on Wednesday, which has helped continue to subdue fire behavior, according to the Thursday morning update. Even with a rise in temperatures on Thursday, the chance for scattered showers should continue over the next few days.

“The rain has certainly helped,“ LeClair said, adding that the fuels — mainly spruce and fir trees — have been able to absorb a lot of the moisture, effectively limiting fire behavior. This would not have been the case had it stayed hot, dry and windy this week.

Operation Section Chief Rob Powell called this rain a blessing for Eagle County in a Facebook video on Thursday. He added the the fire activity is “smoldering, skunking around due to the rain.”

However, with temperatures expected to rise through the weekend, the crews are preparing for a possible increase in fire behavior next week.

“They’ve gone all the way around the fire and scouted out contingency lines should the weather change and should the fire behavior increase or the wind increase,” LeClair said. “We have looked further out from the edge of the fire for those opportunities to have alternative lines, should we need them.”

Firefighters continue to battle difficult terrain in building a perimeter around the Sylvan Fire. On Thursday, the crews will recieve assistance from heavy equipment for some of the area’s most dense and steep terrain.
Special to the Daily

As part of this scouting, the crews have identified several areas that require further securing from the fire.

On Thursday, firefighters are hoping to make progress along the powerline road and further evaluating the area.

“It’s continuing the work that they’ve done, going back over and griding areas to make sure they haven’t missed any potential hotspots; and then tying into the trails and the powerline road and some of those areas that we’ve identified as good fuel breaks already,” LeClair said.

Already, certain areas of the fire have been almost entirely contained and firefighters are working to establish a line along the fire’s perimeter South of Sylvan Lake where terrain allows. Firefighters will continue securing and improving the control line along the steam, parallel to Forest Service Road 400.

Firefighters have also completed a containment line along the Mount Thomas Trail ridgeline and down into the drainage basin. The steep, inaccessible portions of the fire further down the drainage will be boxed in by Mount Thomas Trail on the south and scree slopes on the west.

The crews will receive extra assistance and manpower from a hotshot crew on a difficult section, just southeast of the current containment line, from the powerline to the stream bottom.

The goal, Powell said, is to have this area contained by “the next shift or two.” He added “we’re going to make that black for you guys by the time we leave,” referring to the black containment line making is way around the fire’s perimeter.

As containment has increased the past few days, the crews have seen less support activity from aircraft in the area. However, the incident management team is bringing in heavy equipment — namely bulldozers and loggin equipment — to help with some of the area’s difficult terrain.

This equipment will be used “to clear some areas to make it safe for the firefighters to operate,” LeClair said. These areas include steep, densely wooded areas in the fire perimeter, where crews need to clear paths for firelines.

Firefighters ask for the public’s support in steering clear of the area. There is still fire and firefighting activity throughout the area.
Special to the Daily

As firefighters continue to manage the ongoing fire activity, LeClaire asks that out of the interest of public and firefighter safety, that people continue to stay out of the area.

“With the Fourth of July weekend coming up, we do expect to see a lot more increase in recreation in the area. So we just urge mountain bikers, hikers, ATVers to please stay out of the area,” she said.

Sylvan Fire at a glance


Location: Eagle County, White River National Forest in Sylvan Lake State Park, 16 miles south of Eagle

Size: 3,792 acres

Fuel: Spruce-Fir

Cause: Suspected lightning, still under investigation

Date of Ignition: June 20 around 3:15 PM

Firefighting Personnel: 425

Containment: 50%

Though lightning is suspected as cause of the fire, the incident is still under investigation.

For the latest information about pre-evacuation or evacuation notices or fire restrictions on non-Federal lands, visit ECemergency.org. Officials are also reminding the public that wildfires are a No Drone Zone, and if you fly, they can’t.

Sylvan Fire containment at 44% as incident team makes plans to scale back operations

11 a.m. update: Firefighters are making steady progress on the Sylvan Fire and the Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Team assigned to area plans to scale back firefighting personnel by the end of the week.

As of Wednesday morning, there are 402 personnel assigned to the 3,792-acre blaze, which remains at 44% containment.

Firefighters are working to secure the perimeter of the fire over the course of the next few days, according to Wednesday morning update from incident command.

The teams will work diligently to further increase containment of the fire before the Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Team transitions out at the end of the week.

The fire remains at 3,792 acres, just under 6 square miles, as of Wednesday morning. The area received about a 10th of an inch of rain throughout the evening Tuesday and a chance of rain persists through Wednesday and Thursday.

The incident team’s fire behavior analyst reported that even heavy fuels in the area are starting to show a slight increase in moisture content.

This has helped “subdue fire behavior,” which is now limited to “creeping and smoldering.”

Temperatures are expected to rise this weekend but the chance of rain and damp weather will remain, playing in the favor of further fire containment.

The two branches of the incident management team have been working tirelessly to establish more “firelines” or “black lines” to contain the fire along its perimeter, according to the release.

One of the divisions assigned within these two branches has been almost entirely contained and firefighters are working to establish a line along the fire’s perimeter South of Sylvan Lake where terrain allows.

Firefighters have also completed a containment line along the Mount Thomas Trail ridgeline and down into the drainage basin.

On Wednesday, additional fire crews were sent to the northwestern part of the fire, which has been identified as a priority area for laying down more fire line.

6:30 p.m. Tuesday update: The Sylvan fire grew only slightly Tuesday, aided by afternoon rain and firefighters’ work on containment lines. As of Tuesday evening, the fire was reported at 3,792 acres, with 44% containment.

While rain has been helpful the last few days, “rain isn’t going to put this fire out,” said public information officer Tracy LeClair. LeClair added that heavy fuels in the fire area are still quite dry and can still burn. And, LeClair said, the rain has actually made building fire line more difficult, because the fine fuels — grasses and other small plants — can’t be burned to help create fire lines.

With more warm weather in the extended forecast, LeClair said some areas may burn within the fire’s perimeter.

Another problem is the steep, densely wooded terrain in the fire perimeter. Those areas are difficult for firefighters to reach. In fact, LeClair said it’s going to require getting heavy equipment into some areas to clear the way for firefighting crews.

A firefighter chops down a burning tree while working the Sylvan Fire outside of Eagle. Firefighters put more black line on the blaze Tuesday, raising containment to 44%.
InciWeb.NWCG.gov/Special to the Daily

While firefighters continue to work, LeClair said fire and law enforcement officials keep hearing about hikers and backpackers in the closed-off areas of the forest.

“We really need people to stay out of there,” LeClair said, not just for hikers’ safety but also for the safety of firefighters.

Two branches

During a Monday evening fire update, Rob Powell, operations section chief for the Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Team in charge, noted that two Hotshot crews are slated to arrive Tuesday to assist with the firefighting effort.

“More resources are coming, and we are looking forward to having them,” Powell said. “With more resources and hand crews, we have a better shot at containment.”

According to the U.S. Forest Service InciWeb information page, there are now 402 personnel assigned to the Sylvan Fire.

The Type I team managing the fire has split efforts into two branches. In Branch I, crews are working on reinforcing and improving the fire line from Sylvan Lake to the powerline road. One of the newly-arrived Hotshot crews was working in the area Tuesday.

A Rapid Extraction Module Support Team has also been stationed at Sylvan Lake. The purpose of the team, if needed, is to extract injured firefighters from difficult terrain.

South of Sylvan Lake, firefighters continue prepping the containment line in the damp, grassy stream bottom parallel to the Eagle-Thomasville Road (400 Road). Firing operations to remove fuels between the fire edge and the stream bottom will be delayed until fuels dry out sufficiently.

In Branch II, a portion of Division Z on the southeastern corner of the fire contains so many snags that it is dangerous to put firefighters into the area. To mitigate this hazard, a timber processor has been ordered to clear a path through the snags and live trees. Any usable logs will be decked for later use.

Further west in this section, firefighters are taking advantage of meadows and other natural features to create a fire barrier. An additional Hotshot crew were working in this area Tuesday.

The steep, inaccessible portions of Division Z that are unsafe for crews to work in will be boxed in by an indirect fireline on the south along the Mount Thomas Trail and scree slopes on the west. In the northwestern part of the fire, in Division A, firefighters continue to work toward containment from the powerline road to LEDE Reservoir and from the reservoir to the southeast.

The Sylvan Fire burn scar, seen from above. There are currently 402 fire personnel assigned to the blaze and two new Hotshot crews are slated to arrive Tuesday.
InciWeb.NWCG.gov/

As they work to contain the fire, Powell stressed that crews are also developing contingency plans if conditions worsen. For example, he noted a plan has been developed to protect structures in the Fulford area. That work will help residents even after the Sylvan Fire is extinguished, Powell said.

Sylvan Fire at a glance


Location: Eagle County, White River National Forest in Sylvan Lake State Park, 16 miles south of Eagle

Size: 3,792 acres

Fuel: Spruce-Fir

Cause: Suspected lightning, still under investigation

Date of Ignition: June 20 around 3:15 PM

Firefighting Personnel: 402

Containment: 44%

Though lightning is suspected as cause of the fire, the incident is still under investigation.

For the latest information about pre-evacuation or evacuation notices or fire restrictions on non-Federal lands, visit ECemergency.org. Officials are also reminding the public that wildfires are a No Drone Zone, and if you fly, they can’t.

With wildfires growing in the West, Biden administration raises federal firefighters pay

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said Wednesday it is hiring more federal firefighters — and immediately raising their pay — as officials ramp up response efforts in the face of a severe drought that is setting the stage for another destructive summer of intense wildfires across the West.

President Joe Biden announced the moves during a virtual meeting with governors from Western states and as a huge swath of the Pacific Northwest endures one of the worst heat waves in recent memory.

“This is an area that has been under-resourced, but that’s going to change and we have to do it,″ Biden told the governors. “We can’t cut corners when it comes to managing our wildfires or supporting our firefighters. Right now we have to act and act fast.″

Recalling horrific scenes from wildfires in California and other states last year, Biden said, “Orange skies look like end-of-days smoke and ash.″

Biden’s plan would ensure that no one fighting wildland fires is making less than $15 per hour and would add or convert to full-time nearly 1,000 firefighters across a host of agencies.

“Because of climate change, wildland firefighting is no longer a seasonal endeavor,” the White House said in a statement. “With fire seasons turning into fire years, it is imperative to have a year-round workforce that is available to respond at any time, that is supported and equitably compensated and is available to undertake preventive actions” such as cutting down small trees and brush that serve as fuel to fires that are increasing in size and intensity.

Western states have been parched by severe drought and record heat that has burned more than 2,300 square miles (5,900 square kilometers) this year. That’s ahead of the pace in 2020, which saw a near-record 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) burned, killing dozens of people and destroying more than 17,000 homes and other structures.

“Climate change is driving a dangerous confluence of extreme heat and prolonged drought,” Biden said. “We’re seeing wildfires of greater intensity that move with more speed.”

Biden has expressed dismay at the starting pay for federal firefighters, which is significantly lower than many local and state fire agencies. Pay for new federal firefighters typically starts at $11 per hour to $14 per hour and they are overtime eligible, according to the Interior Department.

The pay raise will come in the form of retention incentives and by providing additional bonuses to those working on the front lines. More experienced permanent firefighters could also be eligible for a 10% retention incentive. Temporary firefighters will be eligible to receive some incentive pay under the plan.

Wednesday’s meeting included at least eight Western governors, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. Both states are facing extreme drought and expect record-breaking fires.

Newsom, a Democrat, said he was pleased to be working with the White House, rather than as “sparring partners,” as he described his state’s relationship with the Trump administration. “We were debating raking policies” in forests, Newsom said, referring to comments by then-President Donald Trump that the state should “rake” its forests to reduce the risk of wildfires.

With climate change, the wildfire seasons are only to get worse, Newsom and other governors said. “The hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier,” Newsom said.

Two Republican governors, Greg Gianforte of Montana and Brad Little of Idaho, said they were disappointed not to receive an invitation to the White House meeting, which included six Democrats and two Republicans.

“No state in what it faces and how it responds is like another,” they wrote in a letter to Biden.

The meeting with the governors comes as the White House released a memo confirming its commitment to a clean energy standard, tax credits and 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles, among other climate goals as officials pursue a two-track approach on infrastructure.

A memo by climate adviser Gina McCarthy and White House senior adviser Anita Dunn also pledges at least $10 billion to conserve and restore public lands and waters, address environmental injustice and create a Civilian Climate Corps to complete federally funded projects to respond to climate change and transition to a clean energy jobs.

The memo responds to criticism from environmental groups and other progressives who are frustrated that many climate-related initiatives were cut out of a bipartisan infrastructure plan announced last week.

“We know more work needs to be done, which is why President Biden will continue championing,” the memo says, both the nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a separate, larger plan Biden and fellow Democrats aim to approve along party lines.

On wildfires, administration officials have pledged to work with Congress to find a permanent fix to increase firefighter pay and convert more seasonal wildland firefighters to year-round workers as fires have grown more severe.

The U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department combine to employ about 15,000 firefighters. Roughly 70% are full time and 30% are seasonal. Those figures used to be reversed, but have changed as fire seasons have grown longer and more severe.

Sylvan Fire at 27% containment, remains at 3,775 acres

Noon update: The size of Sylvan Fire — now nine days old — has remained constant at 3,775 acres for the past few days. Containment has increased each of the last three days and currently stands at 27%.

With very light fire behavior since the recent rains, more rain likely over the next week, and good progress made toward containing the fire, fire managers are looking at options for the days ahead. These will include keeping sufficient numbers of firefighters on the ground to continue progress towards containment while beginning to right size other parts of the fire organization.

Fire managers and local officials are also reminding residents and visitors alike, entering the Fourth of July weekend, that Stage II Fire restrictions remain in place throughout the area.

Two branches

During a Monday evening fire update, Rob Powell, operations section chief for the Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Team in charge, noted that two Hotshot crews are slated to arrive Tuesday to assist with the firefighting effort.

“More resources are coming and we are looking forward to having them,” Powell said. “With more resources and hand crews, we have a better shot at containment.”

According to the U.S. Forest Service Inciweb information page, there are now 387 personnel assigned to the Sylvan Fire.

The Type I team managing the fire has split efforts into two branches. In Branch I, crews are working on reinforcing and improving the fire line from Sylvan Lake to the powerline road. One of the newly-arrived Hotshot crews will be working in the area Tuesday.

A Rapid Extraction Module Support Team has also been stationed at Sylvan Lake. The purpose of the team, if needed, is to extract injured firefighters from difficult terrain.

South of Sylvan Lake, firefighters continue prepping the containment line in the damp, grassy stream bottom parallel to the Eagle-Thomasville Road (400 Road). Firing operations to remove fuels between the fire edge and the stream bottom will be delayed until fuels dry out sufficiently.

In Branch II, a portion of Division Z on the southeastern corner of the fire contains so many snags that it is dangerous to put firefighters into the area. To mitigate this hazard, a timber processor has been ordered to clear a path through the snags and live trees. Any usable logs will be decked for later use.

Further west in this section, firefighters are taking advantage of meadows and other natural features to create a fire barrier. An additional Hotshot crew will be working in this area Tuesday.

The steep, inaccessible portions of Division Z that are unsafe for crews to work in will be boxed in by an indirect fireline on the south along the Mount Thomas Trail and scree slopes on the west. In the northwestern part of the fire, in Division A, firefighters continue to work toward containment from the powerline road to LEDE Reservoir and from the reservoir to the southeast.

The Sylvan Fire burn scar, seen from above. There are currently 387 fire personnel assigned to the blaze and two new Hotshot crews are slated to arrive Tuesday.
inciweb.nwcg.gov/

As they work to contain the fire, Powell stressed that crews are also developing contingency plans if conditions worsen. For example, he noted a plan has been developed to protect structures in the Fulford area. That work will help residents even after the Sylvan Fire is extinguished, Powell said.

Sylvan Fire at a glance


Location: Eagle County, White River National Forest in Sylvan Lake State Park, 16 miles south of Eagle

Size: 3,775 acres

Fuel: Spruce-Fir

Cause: Suspected lightning, still under investigation

Date of Ignition: June 20 around 3:15 PM

Firefighting Personnel: 387

Containment: 27%

Looking for that black line

Everyone wants to see black lines on fire boundary maps because they signify containment lines around the blaze. Mark Giacoletto, deputy incident commander for the Sylvan Fire team, noted it will likely be a while before that happens.

“When will it be out? I don’t see, in the very near future, having a black line all round it,” Giacoletto said. “It will be a bit before it’s contained. There will be smoke popping up through interior throughout the summer.”

That said, Giacoletto said he is optimistic about where the situation stands and the crews assigned to the scene.

On the subject of the firefighting crews assigned to the fire, Powell and Giacoletto thanked the Eagle Valley community for its hospitality. Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek noted locals who want to offer tangible evidence of their support can contribute to gift card programs being offered by various merchants in the area. The gift card donations give fire personnel free meals at local businesses, compliments of grateful local citizens.

Eye on the skies

Sylvan Fire Incident Commander Dan Dallas noted that weather conditions remain a critical component of crews’ efforts.

“The weather this week should favor continued progress on fire line construction and preparation for future burning operations,” Dallas said in a Monday morning update. “A few new crews have arrived, and two additional Hotshot crews are expected soon. This will help with completing some of the more difficult portions of the fire line.”

Crews have completed a direct fire line from Sylvan Lake westward to the power line road. South of Sylvan Lake, firefighters are prepping the primary containment line along the moist, grassy stream bottom parallel to the Eagle-Thomasville Road.

Crews are also working to contain the portion of the fire that moved south of the Mount Thomas Trail and ridgeline. Once they have completed this section, they will then clear an indirect fire line extending westward along Mount Thomas Trail as a contingency against southward spread of the fire in the steep, inaccessible portions that are unsafe for crews to work in.

Dallas said the favorable weather over the weekend and more moisture on the way is helping moderate the situation.

“Rain received in recent days will continue to keep fuels moist while moderating fire behavior. Fire spread will be limited and consisting mostly of smoldering and creeping,” Dallas said.

Though lightning is suspected as cause of the fire, the incident is still under investigation.

For the latest information about pre-evacuation or evacuation notices or fire restrictions on non-Federal lands, visit ECemergency.org. Officials are also reminding the public that wildfires are a No Drone Zone, and if you fly, they can’t.

Sylvan Fire at 19% containment Monday morning; weather should help firefighters this week

The Sylvan Fire, which started June 20, in Eagle County has reached 19% containment and remains at 3,775 acres as of Monday morning, according to Incident Commander Dan Dallas.

“The weather this week should favor continued progress on fireline construction and preparation for future burning operations,” Dallas said in a Monday morning update. “A few new crews have arrived, and two additional hotshot crews are expected soon. This will help with completing some of the more difficult portions of the fireline.”

Crews have completed a direct fireline from Sylvan Lake westward to the powerline road. South of Sylvan Lake, firefighters are prepping the primary containment line along the moist, grassy stream bottom parallel to the Eagle-Thomasville Road.

Crews are also working to contain the portion of the fire that moved south of the Mount Thomas Trail and ridgeline. Once they have completed this section, they will then clear an indirect fireline extending westward along Mount Thomas Trail as a contingency against southward spread of the fire in the steep, inaccessible portions that are unsafe for crews to work in.

Dallas said the favorable weather over the weekend and more moisture on the way is helping moderate the situation.

“Rain received in recent days will continue to keep fuels moist while moderating fire behavior. Fire spread will be limited and consisting mostly of smoldering and creeping,” Dallas said.

Though lightning is suspected as cause of the fire, the incident is still under investigation.

For the latest information about pre-evacuation or evacuation notices or fire restrictions on non-Federal lands, visit www.ecemergency.org. Officials are also reminding the public that wildfires are a No Drone Zone, and if you fly, they can’t.

This is a developing story that will be updated.