1989: Wildfire strikes Missouri Heights
In celebrating the 125th anniversary of The Aspen Times, we are printing a story or two from each year the newspaper has existed – 125 historical selections in 125 days. This series is in conjunction with the Aspen Historical Society. Wildfire strikes Missouri HeightsCharred hillsides and smoke-filled skies from Aspen to Silt were almost all that remained today of a 900-acre wildfire that destroyed one home and nearly wiped out seven others Wednesday on Missouri Heights.Bureau of Land Management officials declared the blaze 75 percent of contained this morning with about 100 firefighters, two helicopters and two engines still working to put the fire out.”The fire’s still burning. Crew’s are there doing reconnaissance and will mop up as soon as possible, wind providing,” said Carol Silvius, of the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.The fire erupted about 2 p.m. Wednesday at a home in the Panorama Ranches subdivision, said Sheriff Verne Soucie.The woman called for firefighters from her burning home, but by the time they arrived a few minutes later, the home was gone, firefighters said.Soucie said he hadn’t had time to begin investigating the fire. He didn’t know the home-owner’s name or how the blaze started.Witnesses reported hearing an explosion, and Soucie said the fire could have involved a butane tank eruption.Possible woodshedMissouri Heights residents watching the fire said they were told that the fire broke out spontaneously in a wood pile behind an older cabin. They said the fire reportedly spread immediately to the cabin, burning it to the ground.Nearly 100 firefighters responded, from Carbondale, Basalt, Redstone, Marble, and the federal Bureau of Land Management.Three DC-8 slurry bombers were dispatched from BLM headquarters in Grand Junction.A helicopter crew flew reconnaissance over the fast-moving flames. Black bombers zoomed low across the Missouri Heights skyline in tandem, one flying as spotter and the other dropping loads of red chemical retardant on flames.After the blaze erupted, it spread rapidly over tinder-dry grass, piñon, sage and brush on the hilly Garfield County subdivision.”When we arrived it was really ripping,” said a Carbondale firefighter.30 Feet HighFire Chief Ron Leach said crews found flames shooting 30-40 feet high when they arrived shortly after 2 p.m.About a half-dozen homes already were on fire by then, with flames licking up the siding of one home.Leach and Soucie credited “courageous” firefighters with preventing more homes from being lost.”The only thing that saved those houses is the firemen. They parked their trucks, and the fire went around them,” Soucie said.”We almost lost some firemen.”Leach said fire trucks were used to create fire lines and blocked the flames from destroying the homes.”They literally saved six to seven houses,” Leach said. (July 1989)
Two-hundred and twenty skiers were evacuated from Aspen Mountain’s Bell Chair on Monday because a 45 mph wind gust caused a cable to derail.No injuries were reported, and the chair was back in operation the following afternoon.The derailment occurred at noon on tower 12 of the lift, near the uphill side of Copper Bowl, said mountain general manager Jon Reveal.Reveal said a series of circumstances caused the cable to derail from its sheave assembly. Sheaves are the grooved wheels on a tower that support the cable while in motion.”The chair was just in the right place in relationship to the sheaves,” when the wind gusted, he said. Had the chair been a few feet uphill of the sheaves, the cable might not have come off the line.Hold Down TowerWhen the cable was no longer on track, the lift automatically shut down, Reveal said. Tower 12, considered a “hold down” tower, is unusual because the rope passes below the sheaves, rather than above. Just past the tower, the cable begins to ascend the steep incline of Bell Mountain.The Bell Chair, also known as Lift 5, was fully loaded at the time of the evacuation, probably because the gondola had shut down less than an hour earlier, Reveal speculated. Ruthie’s Chair, on the west side of the mountain, was also shut down due to wind.Winds also forced the closure of Sam’s Knob and Campground lifts at Snowmass, the Skico reported.Rope and HopeIt took six teams of ski patrollers three and a half hours to clear the chair using a belaying system and a T-chair.The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board recommends that open-air lifts be evacuated within 1.5 to 2 hours, while enclosed lifts, like the gondola, be cleared in three hours.Reveal said the closed chairs and gondola made movement around the mountain difficult. He likened the situation to “a bridge being out.”Rescuers who were already down the mountain had to be brought up by snowmobile. But Reveal also said that off-duty patrollers skiing on the mountain were there to lend a helping hand.Patrollers Flint Smith and Art Nerbonne were two on-duty rescuers stranded at the bottom when the lift went down. They had to hike up Little Nell into the muddy Bingo Slot, Spar Road, and Jackpot, to aid in the evacuation.Smith estimated that skiers were lowered 75 feet in a section near Copper.”The guests were very happy and thankful when we got through with them,” he said.Because the other lifts were down, some beginner skiers were riding the Bell Chair Monday. Smith said “it was tough” because the skiers were lowered into terrain well beyond their ability.The only account of a passenger refusing to be evacuated was a frightened little girl who was eventually coaxed from the lift, Reveal said.Everyone evacuated was given two lift tickets and a discount drink coupon. (March 1989)
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