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Wildland fire in Glenwood Canyon snuffed out

A crew of the Glenwood Springs Firefighters raft across the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon to access a small fire that broke out Tuesday near the railroad tracks on the south side of the interstate.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Fire crews worked quickly and successfully contained a blaze in Glenwood Canyon on Tuesday afternoon.

Crews were mopping up by Tuesday evening and had kept the fire at about quarter-acre in size.

Glenwood Springs Fire Marshal Greg Bak said the report came in at 2:50 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. The fire site is located south of the Colorado River near the railway pass, he said.

Glenwood Springs Fire crews head to a small wildland fire that broke out in Glenwood Canyon near MM 122 on Tuesday afternoon.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Wind gusts are currently 25-45 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.

“That’s certainly not going to help,” Bak said. “It’s going to be an issue, but our crews are on it, so that’s a positive note.”

BURN PERMITS CANCELED

Due to dry conditions and high winds, all burn permits within Glenwood Springs and the Glenwood Springs Fire District are being placed on hold for the foreseeable future, Glenwood Springs Fire Marshal Bak said.

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@postindependent.com

Wildland fire contained near Castle Creek Road

Fire crews work at the site of a wildland fire up Castle Creek Road on Sunday, May 8, 2022.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

Castle Creek Road near Aspen reopened in both directions Sunday evening after it closed due to a wildfire near milepost 6 earlier in the afternoon.

The fire was near the side of the road on the uphill slope between Castle Creek Road and Little Annie Road. The page for fire response went out just before 3 p.m., according to Jake Andersen, the deputy chief of operations for Aspen Fire Department.

The fire was “contained” as of about 4:15 p.m. Sunday, Andersen said in a phone call, and it was “controlled” before 7:25 p.m., he wrote in a text message.

Containment means crews had established a preliminary line around the fire, but it had not yet been completely extinguished; a fire is “controlled” when it is officially out, he said in a phone call Sunday afternoon. The fire covered about 1.5 acres, he said in another phone call later that evening.

By about 5 p.m. Sunday, crews appeared to have mostly doused the fire and were still working onsite with fire apparatus. By that point, the main signs that a fire had broken out were burnt patches of ground, some charred tree trunks and the smell of smoke.

A firefighter douses the base of a tree near the side of Castle Creek Road, where a wildland fire broke out on Sunday, May 8, 2022.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

The fire was “fast moving and in the wind, and we’re lucky to get so many people on it so quick,” Andersen said.

“Officially, the cause is under investigation,” Andersen said.

Castle Creek Road is on the backside of Aspen Mountain, and the road goes about 11 miles from the roundabout to get to the Ashcroft area.

More than 15 personnel responded to the fire, including 11 personnel from the Aspen Fire Department, two from the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority and two from Aspen Ambulance and folks from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, Andersen said. Six apparatus from those crews responded as well. Roaring Fork Fire also helped Aspen Fire with coverage down in town, he said.

The Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit also dispatched personnel and an engine to the scene.

“Obviously a big thanks to all of our partners for helping all of us out,” Andersen said.

Andersen noted that there was a tree that fell on a powerline in the area, and power was out to a portion of the Castle Creek area, he said. Holy Cross Energy went to the scene, he said.

The Holy Cross Energy outage map indicated that an outage reported around 4:30 p.m. in the Castle Creek area impacted 57 customers. The cause of the outage was “tree failure” without ice or snow, due to “wind, etc.” according to the map. By 6 p.m. the map was updated and no longer showed an outage in the area.

Another fire broke out up the Fryingpan Valley on Sunday evening near Ruedi Creek, according to Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority Chief Scott Thompson.

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue got the call just before 5 p.m., and the fire was contained by “probably about 5:30 (p.m.),” Thompson said. It covered about a quarter acre of land, and “there was no threat to the subdivision,” he said. It was controlled and all crews had cleared by just after 7:40 p.m., he wrote in a text message.

Homeowners at Ruedi Creek extended garden hoses to the fire to help suppress the flames until Roaring Fork Fire Rescue crews arrived, Thompson said.

“They kind of held the fire at bay,” Thompson said.

About a half dozen apparatus and 15 or so personnel responded to the fire, he said.

The Holy Cross Energy outage map showed an outage reported at 4:34 p.m. on Frying Pan Road impacting 294 customers. Holy Cross crews were responding to the outage. As of 6:45 p.m., the map stated that the cause of the outage was “unknown.”

The Aspen area is part of a high wind advisory issued Sunday morning by the National Weather Service, and it is in effect until 9 a.m. Monday.

“Southwest winds 35 to 50 mph with gusts up to 70 mph expected,” according to the wind advisory for portions of northwest, southwest and west central Colorado. High winds and warmer temperatures are in the forecast through Wednesday for the Aspen and Snowmass areas.

“Wind gusts of 30 to 50 mph will be common across most of the area Monday. Gusty winds are forecasted to continue Tuesday and beyond,” according to the National Weather Service outlook. “Critical fire weather conditions are expected Monday and will likely remain in place through at least Thursday.”

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Artificial intelligence tapped to fight Colorado, Western U.S. wildfires

Burned trees left from the 2020 Cameron Peak fire in Larimer County in Oct. 24, 2021.
Colorado Public Radio photo

DENVER — With wildfires becoming bigger and more destructive as the West dries out and heats up, agencies and officials tasked with preventing and battling the blazes could soon have a new tool to add to their arsenal of prescribed burns, pick axes, chain saws and aircraft.

The high-tech help could come by way of an area not normally associated with fighting wildfires: artificial intelligence. And space.

Lockheed Martin Space, based in Jefferson County, is tapping decades of experience of managing satellites, exploring space and providing information for the U.S. military to offer more accurate data quicker to ground crews. They are talking to the U.S. Forest Service, university researchers and a Colorado state agency about how their their technology could help.

By generating more timely information about on-the-ground conditions and running computer programs to process massive amounts of data, Lockheed Martin representatives say they can map fire perimeters in minutes rather than the hours it can take now. They say the artificial intelligence, or AI, and machine learning the company has applied to military use can enhance predictions about a fire’s direction and speed.

“The scenario that wildland fire operators and commanders work in is very similar to that of the organizations and folks who defend our homeland and allies. It’s a dynamic environment across multiple activities and responsibilities,” said Dan Lordan, senior manager for AI integration at Lockheed Martin’s Artificial Intelligence Center.

Lockheed Martin aims to use its technology developed over years in other areas to reduce the time it takes to gather information and make decisions about wildfires, said Rich Carter, business development director for Lockheed Martin Space’s Mission Solutions.

“The quicker you can react, hopefully then you can contain the fire faster and protect people’s properties and lives,” Carter said.

The concept of a regular fire season has all but vanished as drought and warmer temperatures make Western lands ripe for ignition. At the end of December, the Marshall Fire burned 991 homes and killed two people in Boulder County. The Denver area just experienced its third driest-ever April with only 0.06 of an inch of moisture, according to the National Weather Service.

The burned remains of a home destroyed by the Marshall Fire are shown Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in Louisville, Colo. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Colorado had the highest number of fire-weather alerts in April of any April in the past 15 years. Crews have quickly contained wind-driven fires that forced evacuations along the Front Range and on the Eastern Plains. But six families in Monte Vista lost their homes in April when a fire burned part of the southern Colorado town.

Since 2014, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control has flown planes equipped with infrared and color sensors to detect wildfires and provide the most up-to-date information possible to crews on the ground. The onboard equipment is integrated with the Colorado Wildfire Information System, a database that provides images and details to local fire managers.

“Last year, we found almost 200 new fires that nobody knew anything about,” said Bruce Dikken, unit chief for the agency’s multi-mission aircraft program. “I don’t know if any of those 200 fires would have become big fires. I know they didn’t become big fires, because we found them.”

When the two Pilatus PC-12 airplanes began flying in 2014, Colorado was the only state with such a program conveying the information “in near real time,” Dikken said. Lockheed Martin representatives have spent time in the air on the planes recently to see if its AI can speed up the process.

“We don’t find every single fire that we fly over, and it can certainly be faster if we could employ some kind of technology that might, for instance, automatically draw the fire perimeter,” Dikken said. “Right now, it’s very much a manual process.”

The Cameron Peak Fire.
Courtesy Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith

Something like the 2020 Cameron Peak fire, which at 208,663 acres is Colorado’s largest wildfire, could take hours to map, Dikken said.

And often the people on the planes are tracking several fires at the same time. Dikken said the faster they can collect and process the data on a fire’s perimeter, the faster they can move to the next fire. If it takes a couple of hours to map a fire, “what I drew at the beginning may be a little bit different now,” he said.

Lordan said Lockheed Martin engineers who have flown with the state crews, using the video and images gathered on the flights, have been able to produce fire maps in as little as 15 minutes.

The company has talked to the state about possibly carrying an additional computer that could help “crunch all that information” and transmit the map of the fire while still in flight to crews on the ground, Dikken said. The agency is waiting to hear the results of Lockheed Martin’s experiences aboard the aircraft and how the AI might help the state, he added.

The company is also talking to researchers at the U.S. Forest Service Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana. Mark Finney, a research forester, said it’s early in discussions with Lockheed Martin.

“They have a strong interest in applying their skills and capabilities to the wildland fire problem, and I think that would be welcome,” Finney said.

The lab in Missoula has been involved in fire research since 1960 and developed most of the fire-management tools used for operations and planning, Finney said. “We’re pretty well situated to understand where new things and capabilities might be of use in the future and some of these things certainly might be.”

However, Lockheed Martin is focused on technology and that’s “not really been where the most effective use of our efforts would be,” Finney said.

“Prevention and mitigation and preemptive kind of management activities are where the great opportunities are to change the trajectory we’re on,” Finney said. “Improving reactive management is unlikely to yield huge benefits because the underlying source of the problem is the fuel structure across large landscapes as well as climate change.”

Logging and prescribed burns, or fires started under controlled conditions, are some of the management practices used to get rid of fuel sources or create a more diverse landscape. But those methods have sometimes met resistance, Finney said.

As bad as the Cameron Peak Fire was, Finney said the prescribed burns the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests did through the years blunted the blaze’s intensity and changed the flames’ movement in spots.

“Unfortunately, they hadn’t had time to finish their planned work,” Finney said.

Lordan said the value of artificial intelligence, whether in preventing fires or responding to a fire, is producing accurate and timely information for fire managers, what he called “actionable intelligence.”

One example, Lordan said, is information gathered and managed by federal agencies on the types and conditions of vegetation across the country. He said updates are done every two to three years. Lockheed Martin uses data from satellites managed by the European Space Agency that updates the information about every five days.

Lockheed is working with Nvidia, a California software company, to produce a digital simulation of a wildfire based on an area’s topography, condition of the vegetation, wind and weather to help forecast where and how it will burn. After the fact, the companies used the information about the Cameron Peak Fire, plugging in the more timely satellite data on fuel conditions, and generated a video simulation that Lordan said was similar to the actual fire’s behavior and movement.

While appreciating the help technology provides, both Dikken with the state of Colorado and Finney with the Forest Service said there will always be a need for “ground-truthing” by people.

Applying AI to fighting wildfires isn’t about taking people out of the loop, Lockheed Martin spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said. “Somebody will always be in the loop, but people currently in the loop are besieged by so much data they can’t sort through it fast enough. That’s where this is coming from.”

Wildfire danger is growing in Pitkin County — do residents care?

Cows graze during the first minutes of the Lake Christine Fire outbreak on the hillside above Basalt on July 3, 2018. The fire grew to threaten both Basalt and El Jebel and burned more than 12,500 acres.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times archive

After the trauma of the Lake Christine Fire in July 2018 and clear evidence that drought is affecting Colorado, officials in Pitkin County thought residents would be more eager to embrace wildfire precautions.

They were wrong.

As the county commissioners approved last week a proclamation recognizing May as Community Wildfire Preparedness Month, emergency management director Valerie MacDonald lamented that too few residents are taking the threat of wildfire seriously.

It’s a matter of time, she said, before Pitkin County’s “number is up.”

Pitkin County was the only county in northwest Colorado that wasn’t affected by a major wildfire in 2020. The Grizzly Creek fire burned about 36,000 acres in Glenwood Canyon, and it could produce consequences such as mudslides for years. The Pine Gulch Fire in Garfield and Mesa counties torched 139,000 acres.

It wasn’t just lower elevation lands drying up and burning in 2020. The East Troublesome Fire in Grand County swept across 194,000 acres. A fire in Summit County was contained to a small area but presented nasty potential because of the proximity to structures.

“Climate change and the ongoing drought have changed conditions dramatically,” MacDonald said.


Even after a winter of above average snowfall in the Roaring Fork watershed, all of Pitkin County remains classified as “abnormally dry” in the U.S. Drought Monitor conditions released April 28. Nearly all of Eagle and Garfield counties are classified in “moderate drought,” class one of four in the drought monitor.

The decent snowfall this winter could not offset the prior years of drought. The signs are clear that even at Pitkin County’s elevations above 7,000 feet, wildfire presents a bona fide threat these days.

“We have been fortunate but how long will our luck hold?” MacDonald said in an interview after meeting with the county commissioners April 27.

The fire departments with a presence in Pitkin County — Aspen, Roaring Fork and Carbondale — expected an uptick in demand for assessments of their property for wildfire potential after the Lake Christine blaze burned three homes and threatened hundreds more in Basalt and El Jebel in July 2018.

The Lake Christine Fire started July 3, 2018, near Basalt and within a day grew to nearly 2,300 acres. In the end, it burned more than 12,500 acres along with three homes.
Anna Stonehouse/Aspen Times archive

Whatever interest was ignited among homeowners quickly waned.

“We were all disappointed,” MacDonald said. “The vast majority just went on their way thinking it will never happen to them.”

Fire prevention experts urge homeowners to improve their odds of protecting their property from wildfire by thinning brush, keeping gutters free of debris and numerous other tips available at www.pitkinwildfire.com.

But MacDonald said property precautions aren’t enough.

“There’s no guarantee that’s going to stop a wildfire,” she said.

Her biggest concern is too many residents haven’t considered an escape plan, haven’t packed a “go bag” of valuables and necessities, and won’t take one of the simplest steps possible to prepare by signing up for emergency alerts.

“After a wildfire in the valley, we don’t want any of our citizens to say, ‘We didn’t know what to do,’” MacDonald said. “We need everyone to take personal responsibility by preparing now to get us through a fast-moving wildfire.”

Evacuation planning isn’t difficult unless a person is first thinking about it on the fly when a fire forces them to flee and the roads are overwhelmed with other motorists. Planning meeting locations and communication plans with family members is vital, MacDonald said.

In the same vein, trying to pack a “go bag” during an emergency is a recipe for disaster. Vital items will be forgotten, so do it in advance.

Most distressing to MacDonald is the fact that only 50% of Pitkin County residents have signed up for emergency notifications at www.pitkinalert.org. Those who are ignoring the simple step are depriving themselves of vital information during disasters, she said.

The facts cannot be “sugarcoated,” MacDonald said. The public safety agencies in the Roaring Fork Valley are as prepared as they can be to respond to emergencies, she said. Now the public needs to step up its efforts.

Learn more to prepare

The Aspen, Roaring Fork and Carbondale fire departments will host “Ready Set Go” educational events in coming weeks as part of Community Wildfire Preparedness Month.

The Aspen Fire Department will host its event at the fire station on May 18 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. The Carbondale Fire Department will host its event on May 19 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. at its headquarters at 301 Meadowood Drive. Roaring Fork Fire Rescue will host its event during the Motors on Midland event May 14 in Basalt.

In addition, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office has launched a new podcast series called “Doin’ Time with the Sheriff.” The first podcast will focus on wildfire threat and what the public can do to reduce that risk. It is available on all major podcast platforms.

(Editor’s note: The date of the Carbondale Fire Department was corrected in this story.)

scondon@aspentimes.com

Colorado officials warn 2022 could be worst wildfire year in state history

Daffodils bloom from the charred remains of Pastor Bill Stephens' home in Superior, Colo., on Thursday, April 7, 2022. Stephens, the lead pastor at Ascent Community Church in neighboring Louisville, and his family are among more than two dozen families in the congregation who lost their homes in a wind-whipped wildfire Dec. 30, 2021. The wildfire northwest of Denver destroyed 1,084 homes, and Stephens' church was filled with smoke and ash. Stephens views the flowers as a sign of rebirth. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Colorado will pour an additional $20 million in federal funding into firefighting and prevention initiatives ahead of what officials say could be the worst wildfire season in the state’s history.

Above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation are predicted across the state through June, thrusting many parts of Colorado into more severe drought conditions and placing more of the state at risk, officials said during a presentation Friday on this year’s wildfire outlook.

Monsoonal moisture could bring reprieve to the Western Slope in June, but current forecasts predict extreme drought conditions for the Front Range through July, Mike Morgan, director of Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control said.

Ahead of what could be a devastating wildfire season, Colorado’s strategy to fight fires involves early detection and aggressive initial attack, Morgan said. The funding will help the state grow its firefighting fleet for the 2022 wildfire season and implement a statewide dispatch center.

Last year, 6,679 reported fires burned a total of 56,056 acres — marking an uptick from the average 5,507 fires reported per year in Colorado, Morgan said.

The state is expected to experience up to a fivefold increase in acres burned by wildfires by 2050, according to the Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s 2022 Wildfire Preparedness Plan.

Click here to read the full story from The Colorado Sun.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported news organization dedicated to covering the people, places and policies that matter in Colorado. Read more, sign up for free newsletters and subscribe at coloradosun.com.

FILE - Smoke rises in a neighborhood of Boulder County that was destroyed by a wildfire as seen from a Colorado National Guard helicopter during a flyover by Gov. Jared Polis on Dec. 31, 2021. In Colorado and other states hit by natural disasters this year, the pandemic has injected extra uncertainty and created more obstacles for families trying to rebuild. (Hart Van Denburg/Colorado Public Radio via AP, Pool, Fil)

Prescribed burns set near Basalt, Silt on forest service land

The map for the scheduled 1,100 prescribed burn on USFS land east of Basalt.
Courtesy image

Editor’s note: The burn east of Basalt was started Thursday morning. From Pitkin Alerts Thursday morning: “Prescribed Fire east of Basalt in Eagle County. Do Not Call 9-1-1 for smoke visible in the area. Smoke will be visible over Cottonwood Pass and may settle throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.”

 

If you see smoke this week east of Basalt or north of Silt, it likely will be from prescribed burns conducted by the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit.

The agency said Tuesday if conditions in the area allow they will burn 1,100 acres of White River National Forest land 6 miles east of Basalt dubbed the Taylor Creek (Seven Castles) Prescribed Fire. They also are hoping to burn 1,200 acres of national forest land about 10 miles north of Silt (Cherry Creek Prescribed Fire).

In a news release, the agency said while some lower elevations are seeing high fire danger, the higher elevations are still covered in snow. The areas planned for prescribed fires are at and above 7,500 feet elevation, according to officials, and both areas are surrounded by snow, which will be used to help keep the prescribed fire within the desired perimeter.

“We are monitoring the conditions on the ground along with site-specific weather forecasts very carefully, and we are anticipating a good opportunity for safe, effective burns in these two areas,” Dan Nielsen, Central Zone Prescribed Fire and Fuels Specialist with the White River National Forest, said in the release. “If conditions are not within the pre-identified prescription, we will not ignite the prescribed fires.”

The National Weather Service had red flag warnings for high wind and dry conditions Tuesday, but those were for areas below 6,500 feet and did not include Eagle or Pitkin counties. Tuesday’s winds were ahead of an approaching Pacific storm, and cooler temperature and possible chance of rain were in the Tuesday night forecast for both areas.

The map for the scheduled 1,200 prescribed burn on USFS land north of Silt.
Courtesy image

UPDATED: I-70 reopens through Glenwood Canyon after fire near Gypsum prompted closure Saturday afternoon

A screenshot of the Colorado Department of Transportation camera shows traffic stopped due to a fire along Interstate 70 near Gypsum.

Update 8:00 p.m.: Interstate 70 is open both directions between MM116 (Glenwood Springs) and MM 140 (Gypsum).

Update 6:30 p.m.: Colorado Department of Transportation is initiating the northern alternate route for I-70 traffic. The Westbound closure point is Exit 157 (Wolcott).

The size of the fire is estimated to be 25-30 acres.

Update 5:00 p.m.: The existing closure on I-70 has been moved from MM 116 (Glenwood Springs) to MM 87 (West Rifle). Local traffic is excluded.

Interstate 70 is closed both directions between MM 116 (Glenwood Springs) and MM140 (Gypsum) due to a fire near Gypsum according to a text alert sent out around 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. There is no estimated time for reopening.

According to the Eagle County PIO Facebook page the Duck Pond Fire began in the area of the Duck Pond Open Space between Gypsum and Dotsero. Winds pushed the fire slowly in an easterly direction towards Gypsum.

Fire crews responded, but the area presents challenging access issues. An evacuation notice has been issued for Willowstone neighborhood in Gypsum. An evacuation shelter is being set up at Eagle River Center at 794 Fairgrounds.

A map of the Duck Pond Fire showing evacuation and pre-evacuation areas near the town of Gypsum. For more information visit http://www.ecemergency.org

5:21 PM Update: PRE-EVACUATION NOTICE: Residents, businesses and others in Red Hill Area, please be ready to evacuate due to a wildland fire. This includes Beacon Rd, Cedar Dr, Strohm Cir, Highland Rd, Sunset Ln, Knob Ln.

To monitor the fire and for further information visit www.ecemergency.org.

This story is developing and will be updated with further information

Wildfire cameras in Pitkin County OK’d for this summer, could help insurance market

Jake Andersen, deputy chief of operations at the Aspen Fire Department, shows off live feeds in August 2021 from cameras installed around Pitkin County connected to artificial intelligence that scan for wildfires.
Jason Auslander / The Aspen Times

A technologically advanced pilot program started last summer to monitor wildfire activity in Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork Valley could eventually make it easier for some area homeowners to receive insurance coverage, sources said Tuesday.

Pitkin County commissioners gave the thumbs up Tuesday for the pilot program — which uses constantly rotating, high-definition cameras to detect possible wildfires — to continue this summer.

“I see absolutely no reason why we wouldn’t want to continue this,” Board Chairwoman Patti Clapper said. “It’s fascinating information and we appreciate the effort.”

The program — administered by a Silicon Valley-based company called Pano AI — did not cost Pitkin County taxpayers anything last year thanks to a donation by Red Mountain homeowner Jerry Hosier. Commissioner Greg Poschman thanked Hosier on Tuesday for that effort.

This year, however, the Aspen Fire Department will foot the bill for the wildfire monitoring, which was discounted to $60,000 — about half price — by Pano because AFD and Pitkin County were one of the first areas to allow the program to be installed and tested last year, said Rick Balentine, AFD chief.

But perhaps more important than the price is that Balentine and Arvind Satyam, Pano’s chief commercial officer, are trying to get insurance companies to be familiar with the wildfire monitoring system. Balentine said the effort will hopefully lead to the companies not only issuing more property insurance policies for area homeowners, but also contributing to the future cost of the monitoring system, which won’t always be offered at half-price.

“(The cameras) are like big smoke detectors in the sky, and as soon as insurance companies recognize that, it will be better for everyone,” he said.

As wildfires have become more prevalent, insurance companies have begun canceling more policies. Balentine said a friend of his who was trying to buy a major property in the Redstone area recently had to end his efforts because he couldn’t get property insurance.

Commissioner Steve Child, whose family has owned a ranch in the Old Snowmass area for decades, also said his property insurance company recently dropped him because of wildfire risk and he had to scramble to find another company that would insure the ranch.

Balentine said he’s been negotiating with insurance companies recently and hopes to possibly invite company representatives to a summit with Satyam and Pano in the near future to demonstrate how valuable the system is for preventing wildfires.

The high-definition cameras have been installed on four communication towers in Pitkin County, including Upper Red Mountain, Ajax, Jackrabbit Ridge in Snowmass Village and the Williams Tower in the Old Snowmass area. They each feature two constantly rotating cameras that use artificial intelligence algorithms to scan the areas for smoke.

The cameras run 24 hours a day, seven days a week between June and November, can see 10 to 15 miles and have a zoom feature that helps triangulate a fire’s location.

After last year’s initial installation, the artificial intelligence has learned a lot, Satyam told commissioners Tuesday. For example, the cameras discovered what changing foliage looks like in the fall — which they hadn’t seen before — as well as what initial snowmaking efforts looked like in November, he said.

Last year’s installation in Pitkin County was Pano’s first outside of California. Now, the company has expanded to Oregon and Montana, as well as two states in Australia, Satyam said. That has allowed the artificial intelligence to learn even more about what smoke looks like against different backgrounds like haze, he said.

Last year’s wildfire season in Pitkin County was, fortunately, fairly quiet, Balentine said. The cameras did detect one lightning strike near Highway 82 in the Lazy Glen area in July, though passersby reported the smoke first.

Balentine said he’s confident the system will continue to provide benefits to Pitkin County residents this summer, especially with the gains made by the artificial intelligence.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Wildfire risk is just a warm, windy day away for Roaring Fork Valley

A helicopter flies over a burning wildfire that started from a lightning strike above Lower River Road in Old Snowmass on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

It’s still raining and snowing in the Roaring Fork Valley, but that’s not dousing experts’ concerns about wildfire threat later this year.

Roaring Fork Fire Protection District’s board of directors recently approved funding for “severity patrol” that will run from Memorial Day Weekend into September, according to fire chief Scott Thompson.

While snowpack has been running close to average this winter, a long-term drought has sucked the moisture level out of trees and vegetation and dried soils, Thompson said. It will take several years of above average moisture to reduce the risk of summer wildfires.

“I think we still have a huge threat in our valley,” Thompson said.

His instincts are typically spot on. He expressed concerns about wildfire risk less than one week before the Lake Christine Fire broke out on July 3, 2018, and threatened Basalt and El Jebel.

As part of this year’s precaution, four full-time summer workers will be hired specifically for the severity patrol. They will drive a fire truck around particularly susceptible portions of the sprawling district, such as Missouri Heights. The crew will also work with homeowners who want to “harden” their property to increase protection from wildfire, Thompson said.

Wildland firefighters standby as a helicopter brings a load of water to drop on a fire that broke out from a lightning strike near Lower River Road in Old Snowmass on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue has run the patrols intermittently over the years. This year is different because special funding was allocated, Thompson said.

The patrols have proven effective in the past because the firefighters have been able to respond to lightning strikes and other sources before fire has a chance to spread, he said.

Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District will also run the special patrols from roughly Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend, according to public information officer Jenny Cutright. The timing could be shortened by wet weather or lengthened by dry weather, she said. Carbondale has operated the summer patrols for multiple years running, Cutright said, and it will coordinate efforts with Roaring Fork since their boundaries meet.

Thompson said wildfires could materialize despite a decent snowpack. Dry conditions and warm spring winds can dry out vegetation quickly. Last spring and early summer was warm and dry.

“I was afraid we were going to lose a subdivision or even a town,” he said.

Spotty snowpack

Even with up to six inches of fresh snow at the ski areas Tuesday night, the snowpack around the Roaring Fork watershed is a mixed bag. Here are snowpack levels reported Wednesday morning from automated Snotel sites operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Independence Pass: 85% of median

Ivanhoe (Fryingpan): 117%

Kiln (Fryingpan): 98%

Schofield Pass (Crystal): 124%

McClure Pass (Crystal): 82%

The summer monsoon appeared later than usual in July and temporarily eased conditions. If this spring is wet and the monsoon shows up around July 4, Thompson said he will sleep better at night, but he’s not counting on getting his rest.

“July and August in Colorado, all bets are off,” Thompson said.

There’s ample evidence of how quickly conditions can change. The NCAR fire broke out near Boulder this week even with snow still scattered on the affected terrain. Another fire broke out outside the mountain town of Estes Park.

Every fire department in the Roaring Fork Valley offers its expertise to assess individual properties for risk and provides advice on how to lower potential for fire overtaking a home. Thompson said fires in Colorado, California and elsewhere show time and again that cedar fencing that abuts a house and even connects houses is a recipe for disaster. In addition, planting juniper bushes against a house is like storing 5-gallon cans of gas along a structure.

Thompson urged people to sign up for emergency alert services offered by the counties of the Roaring Fork Valley. That’s a key way to stay informed about evacuations for wildfires.

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue will also work with Eagle and Pitkin counties to provide reverse 911 calls to landlines and special notifications, similar to Amber Alerts for abducted or missing children, on cell phones.

Thompson said drought has extended fire season to six months in Colorado’s high country. The season starts in April and lasts until ample snowpack accumulates, typically in October or November.

“There’s no safe time,” he said. “We’re ready to have fires. I’m always uneasy.”

scondon@aspentimes.com

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.