Coal Seam blaze still worries officials
June 12, 2002
The incident commander for the Coal Seam fire cautioned Glenwood Springs residents Tuesday that the blaze raging in the hills above the city remains a severe threat to their community.And Gov. Bill Owens, speaking at a press conference yesterday morning in Glenwood, said there is currently no federal assistance available for local homeowners and renters who lost their homes and belongings to the fire over the weekend. But he also said he is discussing the possibility of financial relief with federal authorities.Owens also defended a statement he made Sunday that “all of Colorado is burning.”The governor has been criticized for the comment by tourism officials, who believe his comments will influence vacationers considering Colorado as a destination (See story, page 5). Owens said he was speaking figuratively in one sense, but pointed out that people throughout the state were affected by fires raging in several different sites.”We have seen real challenges,” he said. “I’m hoping in a week or two, we’ll be back to blue skies and green forests.”Firefighters from all over the West were battling fires around Colorado yesterday afternoon.The Coal Seam fire continued to burn around three sides of Glenwood Springs yesterday, its third full day.Fire crews held their ground as the fire grew to more than 11,000 acres throughout the day yesterday, said incident command spokesman Justin Dombrowski. Containment remained at 5 percent.”We’re not really getting the resources we need to really get some containment of this fire,” Dombrowski said. He pointed out that much of the focus has shifted to the Hayman fire southwest of Denver, which was pushing out toward 100,000 acres yesterday afternoon.Ground crews and air support on the Coal Seam fire worked throughout the day to secure lines in South Canyon and on Red Mountain. At the end of the day, residents of lower Three Mile Creek were allowed back into their homes, dropping the number of evacuees to less than 200.The fire started Saturday afternoon in South Canyon, just west of Glenwood. Within six hours it had grown to more than 1,000 acres and was threatening homes and businesses in West Glenwood Springs.Authorities evacuated the area as the fire moved rapidly toward neighborhoods on the extreme western edge of the city. By Sunday morning, approximately 3,000 people had been evacuated from several neighborhoods in town.Thirty-one homes and cabins were lost or severely damaged Saturday night and Sunday morning before the flames moved into more remote areas west and north of the city limits.Federal and state authorities began arriving at the scene Sunday morning, and took over the fight later that day. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has committed to pay 75 percent of the cost of fighting the fire.FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh was touring the state with the governor yesterday. They stopped first in Glenwood Springs to survey the damage before moving to the explosive Hayman fire that has consumed tens of thousands of acres and remains a threat to homes of more than 40,000 people.FEMA is monitoring progress against 26 fires currently burning throughout the nation, although most of the agency’s attention and resources have been directed at Colorado since the Coal Seam fire began taking out homes and property.”It’s important for me to see the damage to make sure we have all the federal assets at Colorado’s disposal,” Allbaugh said.Allbaugh briefed President George W. Bush on the situation here. He said the president “understands the danger” fire poses.Steve Hart, the incident commander in Glenwood Springs, reported there are currently 500 firefighters on the scene, including three highly trained hand crews of 18 to 22 firefighters that are part of the Hot Shot program. Two more Hot Shot crews are expected today or tomorrow. Six slurry bombers and a helicopter have been providing air support since Monday.”We are still short on some resources that we hope to get in over the next day or two,” Hart said.The fire is being allowed to burn mostly unchecked, for now, in areas that are bordered by wilderness in the Flat Top mountains north of town.”The trees and grass will grow back, but people’s lives, as we all know, cannot be brought back,” he said. The focus yesterday was on building fire lines to protect Three Mile Creek, South Canyon and the Mitchell Creek neighborhood in West Glenwood.Hart said he still doesn’t know how long it will take to fully contain the fire.He said most of the firefighters on the nine hand crews working Monday and Tuesday were from the Pacific Northwest, which is not experiencing the severe drought conditions that have parched this and other states in the Southwest.Hot, dry weather and high winds over the past several weeks have made the already bone-dry forests in Colorado vulnerable to fire. Hart and other experts expect to see the extreme fire conditions move north as the drought extends into the summer.”Soon, Wyoming will be experiencing the same levels of dryness we are,” Hart said.