Fire at Glenwood’s door
June 10, 2002
Firefighters prevented the Coal Seam fire from causing further damage yesterday after it destroyed 24 homes and rattled the nerves of Glenwood Springs residents Saturday.
The fire consumed more than 7,500 acres and forced the evacuation of more than 3,000 residents, authorities estimated. Residents were offered a tour of neighborhoods Sunday but weren’t allowed to return home as of press time.
An estimated 38 structures were believed destroyed when the wind-whipped fire shocked officials and jumped north across the Colorado River and Interstate 70.
The hardest-hit area was the Robin Hood Mobile Home Park. Eight trailers and two stick-built homes were destroyed. Only three trailers were saved.
In the neighboring Storm King Mobile Home Park, firefighters saved 43 of 50 trailers. Both the Robin Hood and Storm King mobile home parks are about a mile west of the West Glenwood Mall.
“It’s amazing how many trailers they saved,” said Kenny Kline, a homeowner along Mitchell Road, a couple of miles up a drainage from the trailer parks.
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Kline’s situation was even more amazing. He was golfing on the Glenwood municipal course Saturday and couldn’t make it to his home when he learned of the fire. Like hundreds of other homeowners, Kline spent a sleepless night Saturday worrying about his property, possessions and friends.
He persuaded a fire safety officer to take him by his house early Sunday morning and found that it was the only one above the Glenwood Springs Fish Hatchery to survive. Five others burned, he said.
Numerous civic structures on the south side of the Colorado River – such as the water treatment plant, the new community center, the RFTA bus barn and the city operations center – were threatened by the flames. RFTA officials were convinced their new bus barn was destroyed until they learned otherwise at 1:30 a.m. Sunday. All the structures were saved, thanks in part to recent construction that left bare ground around them.
Flames also fueled rumors that several businesses at and around the mall were destroyed, but they proved false. Nevertheless, the fire had people fearing the worst.
“It was the scariest thing I ever saw in my life – just the sheer power,” said Ron VanMeter, information officer for the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.
The blaze started at about 1 p.m. in South Canyon, when an underground fire that’s been burning in a coal mine for 100 years ignited brush and grass on the ground, according to Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri.
The fire grew to five acres within an hour, then it took off. “It grew from one acre to 400 acres in seconds,” said Garfield County Commissioner John Martin.
Homeowners were ordered out of their neighborhoods by law officers using bullhorns. Thick smoke and gridlock made the drive from West Glenwood to Glenwood Springs torturous for many residents.
Dave and Melanie Davis were warned by a neighbor that the fire had jumped the river. Their family left their home at the Glenwood Springs Fish Hatchery immediately with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.
“We got to the bottom of the road and it was right there,” Melanie Davis said of the fire.
They eventually abandoned their vehicle due to the gridlock. Walking was faster.
After spending Saturday night and half of Sunday worrying about the fate of their home and safety of their neighbors, the Davises learned their property was safe.
Colorado Congressman Scott McInnis said the heroism of firefighters prevented significantly greater destruction in West Glenwood. Contrary to early reports, firefighters never abandoned West Glenwood.
“Every one of them was holding the line right there at Robin Hood Trailer Park,” he said.
West Glenwood faced its greatest threat between 6 p.m. and midnight, after the fire blew up and blew to the north side of the valley, according to Frankie Romero, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
“There was a six-hour period where it was kind of a fire fight running from one place to the next,” Romero said.
Authorities didn’t claim to have the fire under any containment Sunday, although the immediate threat to the most populated areas was gone.
The Four Mile and Three Mile canyon areas were evacuated Sunday morning as a precaution. West Glenwood Springs, north Glenwood and No Name were evacuated the previous afternoon and night.
The fire jumped the river and interstate near a trailer and RV park known as Ami’s Acres, on the east flank of Storm King Mountain. A wildfire on Storm King killed 14 smokejumpers in July 1994 when winds shifted and the flames overtook them.
Erratic winds once again created problems for firefighters, but this time it didn’t result in the loss of life.
“I don’t think we anticipated having this type of trouble,” said Romero, an 18-year fire-fighting veteran. Firefighters were forced into a defensive mode where all they could do was try to save structures and facilities rather than try to put the fire out, he said.
Basalt’s fire department was the first of scores from around the West Slope that sent help for West Glenwood. Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said he saw the fire do something he hasn’t seen in 20 years of fire fighting when it raced so quickly downslope in South Canyon. It chased firefighters out, he said.
Basalt’s crew regrouped at Ami’s Acres when the fire pulled its second surprise. Embers blew across the interstate and set the hillside above Ami’s Acres on fire, Thompson said.
The wind increased from 30 to 40 mph in early afternoon to 60 and 70 mph by early evening, authorities said. In addition, the wind direction changed “four or five times” Saturday, said Glenwood Springs Fire Department Battalion Chief Darryl Queen.
“It was really beyond our control to do anything at that point,” he said.
The biggest surprise was the fire torched Storm King Mountain, even though it burned just eight years ago and had limited fuels. “That’s not supposed to happen,” Queen said.
The winds wiped out any opportunity for federal authorities to unleash their array of air tankers, helicopters and ground crews on Saturday.
“We did not have access to air tankers [initially],” Dalessandri said. “When we did have access they couldn’t fly because of winds.”
Federal officials sent in helicopters dropping buckets of water and air tankers dropping retardant to try to gain the upper hand starting at 9 a.m. Sunday.
A Type 1 incident-management team was scheduled to take over the lead in fire fighting by today. That team is the highest qualified to handle emergencies where structures and lives are threatened, according to authorities.
In addition, 100 National Guard members were deployed to help secure sites and assist with evacuations.
Both Gov. Bill Owens, who visited Glenwood on Sunday, and the federal government released funds to fight the fire.
But it will require more than snuffing the flames to complete Glenwood’s recovery.
Rippy said this event affects Glenwood’s psyche because it reminds residents of their town’s vulnerability and rekindles memories of the deaths of the firefighters in 1994.
“This rips the scab right off of that,” he said.
Officials such as Sheriff Dalessandri and Commissioner Martin agreed that this fire will leave scars that are different but just as significant as Storm King.
“This opens big wounds for this community,” Dalessandri said.