Area forest fire may keep burning, or not |

Area forest fire may keep burning, or not

Janet UrquhartThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Conditions are ideal to monitor, rather than fight, the small forest fire burning southeast of Aspen, fire officials said Friday, and that’s what the crew keeping tabs on the blaze intends to do.Officials who gathered for a press conference at Aspen City Hall could not predict how large the fire – still less than an acre in size on Friday – might grow or how long it will burn.”It could be that it’s already out,” said Lathan Johnson, assistant fire management officer with Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management. It had been “skunking around in the rocks,” he said.A lightning strike started the blaze on Monday, but heavy rains fell Thursday afternoon, and there were no flames visible from the air on Thursday evening. Observers continue to monitor the site from Richmond Ridge, on the opposite side of the Roaring Fork Valley, and during periodic fly-overs with a helicopter.In addition, a seven-member fire crew from Yellowstone National Park, equipped to spend a week or two in the backcountry with the blaze, is now keeping an eye on the fire’s development.The fire could smolder and then burn more actively again in the coming days. Smoke may ebb and flow and eventually be noticeable in town, officials warned. If the blaze were to quickly expand, other resources -including helicopters and hot shot crews – would be called in as necessary, Johnson said.Fire officials didn’t appear to expect a major conflagration, though. A wet winter and rainy June have produced ideal conditions to manage the fire, which is burning on a steep slope directly north of Difficult Campground, about 3 miles southeast of Aspen. It has been dubbed the Difficult Fire.It’s a two-hour “knee-breaking steep” climb to the site, said John Markalunas, an Aspen native who has taken over as the incident commander for the fire. He’s with the U.S. Forest Service, based in the San Isabel National Forest.”It’s OK if the fire continues to spread uphill to the northeast to the top of the ridge,” Markalunas said.In that direction, it would burn toward the Continental Divide, moving into the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness north of Highway 82 on Independence Pass, he said. Crews have built a fire line to keep it from burning downhill toward the highway, and have assessed how to protect the Benedict Huts atop Smuggler Mountain, though prevailing winds wouldn’t take the fire toward the huts, Markalunas said. Wind and precipitation will play the biggest role determining how big the fire grows, if it does. It could be winter snows that finally extinguish it if it burns that long, he said. Rocky areas would provide some natural fire breaks in its path.As long as it’s not threatening private property or the highway, allowing the fire to burn will help rejuvenate a mature forest and clear out fuels that, in a drier year, could make a forest fire more difficult to control, Johnson said. The newly burned area also creates a fire break in the event of a future fire, he said.In 2004, 11 acres burned in a similarly managed fire in the upper reaches of the Fryingpan Valley.The Aspen area has not seen a forest fire since the human-sparked Weller Fire of 1980; the scars of that blaze are still visible on the south side of Highway 82 on Independence

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