Coal Seam Fire takes up where Storm King left off | AspenTimes.com

Coal Seam Fire takes up where Storm King left off

Dennis Webb

Whipped by high winds, a fire blew up in South Canyon Saturday afternoon, sweeping into Glenwood Springs, where it destroyed numerous structures and forced the evacuation of much of the town.

Several homes on the extreme edge of West Glenwood were reportedly consumed by the Coal Seam Fire, reportedly started when a long-burning underground coal fire broke through the surface and ignited oak brush.

“It was a mad scramble. The mountainside just got completely engulfed in fire,” said Craig Amichaux, whose family lost several structures in the fire. “It just happened so quick it was unbelievable.”

His family’s properties are in the area of the Ami’s Acres campground, owned by his parents, Paul and Jacky Amichaux. The campground’s status was unclear but it also was believe to be at least partly burned.

Storm King Trailer Park also reportedly suffered damage. Also, homes in the Mitchell Creek area to the north were said to have been burned.

“It is impossible to know how many homes are lost at this time,” said Ron VanMeter of the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department.

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At least two newly built structures in the Wulfsohn Ranch area – the city Municipal Operations Center and the RFTA bus barn – also reportedly may have been lost to the fire. But the newly opened community center, on the other end of Wulfsohn Ranch, appeared to have survived a close scrape with flames by nightfall.

The fire reportedly also had reached the golf course in West Glenwood.

Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management reported five homes and one commercial property destroyed. Five hundred homes and 100 commercial properties were threatened.

There were reports of the Glenwood Springs Mall and car dealerships in West Glenwood potentially having suffered fire damage, but those reports could not be confirmed Saturday.

All of West Glenwood was evacuated by the fire, as were Midland Avenue and the Red Mountain area, and some other locations as well, including the county jail, whose prisoners reportedly were shipped out by RFTA bus to an undisclosed location.

The rush of several thousand residents created major traffic jams. Those resulted in part because Interstate 70 was closed through South Canyon and also for westbound travelers east of Glenwood.

“The biggest problem is nobody can get out,” said one eyewitness in West Glenwood, Mark Michaud. “The roads are totally packed. People are driving down the other side of the road to get out of here. … There’s a bit of panic going.”

But Becky Young, a spokesperson for Valley View Hospital, said that by at least one measure, the removal of residents to safe locations appeared to have gone well. She said there had been no admissions to the hospital by mid-evening – not even for smoke inhalation.

“That’s quite remarkable. That means somebody must have done a pretty good job with evacuation.”

Officials with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department said they also were unaware of any injuries or deaths from the fire.

Evacuees were directed at one point to Glenwood Springs High School, until that facility was evacuated. Colorado Mountain College’s Spring Valley Campus became the new evacuation center.

Kinder Morgan halted operations at facilities that provide natural gas to about 1,500 homes and businesses in West Glenwood. Kinder Morgan technicians will be ready to restore service as soon as it is safe to do so, and those affected by the interruption are advised not to try to relight their pilot light or turn on their meter.

The fire brought back eerie memories of the Storm King Mountain fire of 1994. The major difference between the two was that that blaze killed 14 firefighters, but left structures intact, while Saturday’s fire took buildings but not lives.

However, both blew up from small blazes to big ones in a matter of hours, both reaching a total of more than 2,000 acres. They both churned up giant clouds of smoke in Glenwood Springs, blotting out the sun.

Liz Mauch, a spokesperson for Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management, said the fire was reported at 12:42 p.m.

A “low-key” evacuation was taken as a precautionary measure in the South Canyon area, she said. However, the fire grew and eventually jumped the Colorado River at South Canyon, picking up where the Storm King Fire left off eight years ago and dropping into West Glenwood. It also continued to move from South Canyon, advancing on Red Mountain and the Three Mile Road area, which was also evacuated.

High winds drove the fire fast and erratically as the day went on, driving flames as high as 200 feet and making fighting the blaze a lower priority, Mauch said.

“We need to be careful with our firefighters’ safety and it’s most important to get people out of the way of the fire,” she said.

The heavy winds also made the use of air tankers difficult during the blowup. They were sent later Saturday, as the winds subsided.

A spotter plane had been active tracking the fire’s movement, however.

The area was under a red flag warning Saturday, meaning that high winds, high temperatures and low relative humidity made for dangerous wildfire conditions. That same warning is in effect today.

“That will just make it difficult” in continuing to fight the blaze, said Mauch.

The fire hit Glenwood during a summer of drought and exceedingly high fire danger statewide. While fires have recently hit other areas hard – including a fire in the Canon City area last week that burned at least 80 homes – Garfield County had emerged virtually unscathed until Saturday.

As the fire blew up Saturday, many people in Glenwood watched the sky in awe, as others appeared oblivious to it.

When the flames got closer to town, it became hard to ignore, especially for those not ordered to evacuate.

“There’s ashes coming down everywhere here,” Michaud said from his West Glenwood vantage point.

The fire forced the closure of some businesses, such as Glenwood Caverns, which will not be open today.

Early Sunday morning, police also were reportedly evacuating the Hotel Colorado.

A reported 130 county personnel, 46 U.S. Forest Service personnel, 20 Bureau of Land Management personnel, 35 engines, one helicopter and five water tenders also are committed to fighting the fire.

Fire crews from as far as Pitkin, Eagle and Mesa counties also were assisting.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster declaration also was reportedly issued for the city.