Lightning sparks wildland fire on hillside near Old Snowmass; crews attack from ground, air

Firefighters will go out again early Saturday to “get a handle on things”

Firefighting officials are on high alert in the Roaring Fork Valley as the dry weather continues, and Friday afternoon a wildland fire started by a lightning strike near Old Snowmass sent firefighters scrambling to the area on the ground and from the air.

Crews were able to knock down the fire, which broke out on a hillside above Highway 82 near mile marker 26, after a few tense hours and will return Saturday morning.

The fire is on Bureau of Land Management land in the Wheatley Gulch, which is mainly filled with pinon juniper, an official said Friday night.

“Folks are a little on edge right now,” Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority Division Chief Richard Cornelius said Friday night. “With this weather we all are certainly concerned.”

He said the fire burned about a half-acre in very steep and rugged terrain on the north side of Highway 82. A helicopter was called in and used to get ground crews closer to the fire and also did multiple water drops, Cornelius said.

He added they were “fairly certain” the fire was ignited by lightning.

Julie Royer Manning lives right below the hillside where the fire started. She heard a loud clap of thunder at 5:05 p.m. and then saw smoke. She said it was not raining at the time.

“I heard this loud boom and it made my dogs jump,” she said in a phone interview at 6 p.m. “It was like a bomb went off.”

Video taken at 6 p.m. of the wildland fire that started Friday afternoon off Highway 82 near Old Snowmass. The road is closed at Gerbaz and Snowmass Canyon due to the fire.

Posted by The Aspen Times on Friday, June 18, 2021

She said she was watching as “big, orange flames” were starting to grow on the hillside.

Shortly after that, the helicopter arrived on scene about 6:05 p.m., according to a people in the area, and the first water drop on the fire came at 6:57 p.m.

Royer Manning said the helicopter was pulling water from a large man-made pond her neighbors put in just recently.

A helicopter flies over a burning wildfire that broke out on Friday evening from a lightning strike above Lower River Road in Old Snowmass on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

There were eight firefighters on the ground working with the helicopter water drops, Cornelius said. The air resources request went to the Grand Junction Interagency Dispatch and the light helicopter came in from Rifle, he said.

Cornelius said at 9:30 p.m. Friday the ground crews were hiking out and would be back first thing Saturday morning to monitor the area and check for hot spots with hand tools and chainsaws to contain the fire.

With the heightened concern about human-caused fires, officials in the Roaring Fork Valley and other parts of western Colorado this week enacted Stage 1 fire restrictions.

Cornelius said a big worry for Saturday is the weather forecast and increased fire danger as the day goes on.

“The thing that we are very concerned about is the red flag warning,” he said. “Hopefully we can get up there early and get a handle on things.”

A red flag warning is in effect from noon to 9 p.m. Saturday for all of western Colorado and eastern Utah as forecasters at the National Weather Service are calling for scattered thunderstorms with lightning, low humidity and wind gusts as fast as 35 mph through Sunday. Temperatures are expect to drop a few degrees this weekend but not for long.

“Conditions may be favorable for easy ignition and rapid spread of fires due to lightning from thunderstorms on Saturday afternoon and low (humidity) and strong gusts on Sunday,” according to the weather service’s warning. “Otherwise, dry conditions are expected for much of the new week.”