Firefighters starting to get handle on Coal Seam blaze

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Officials announced Wednesday evening that the destructive Coal Seam blaze has been 25 percent contained, with fire lines creating a protective “horseshoe” around previously threatened areas of Glenwood Springs.

Continued attacks on all edges of the wildfire – with repeated strikes occurring from both land and air crews – helped firefighters make their biggest advance yet in their four days on the front lines. Incident command spokesman Justin Dombrowski reported only a 5 percent containment Wednesday morning during his first press conference of the day; by 8 p.m., crews celebrated a significant first step in controlling the now 11,500-acre wildfire.

The nearly 1,000 people now battling the blaze have made especially promising progress on the western edge of the fire, located just above the South Canyon area west of Glenwood, Dombrowski said. Though crews discovered two or three more South Canyon structures leveled by the fire – officials now estimate up to 40 buildings in and around the city may have been destroyed – they are optimistic that the fire’s western front has stopped its spread.

“That’s a good sign for the people in Silt who called wondering what’s going on,” Dombrowski said. “We’re really making some progress on this western edge.”

The eastern edge has been fortified, as well. Fire lines have been moved into a horseshoe shape around West Glenwood, Dombrowski said.

The most troublesome area for firefighters seems to be the north line of the fire, which has crept into the hills above Glenwood Springs and stretched toward the tiny community of No Name. Smoke poured from the hilltops throughout the day Wednesday, and some No Name residents were worried that they would be forced to evacuate their homes for the second time in four days.

Dombrowski blamed the extra smoke on a densely wooded area that fell victim to the wildfire Wednesday afternoon. Three different colors of smoke reported by witnesses was caused by the burning of three types of wood. By Wednesday afternoon, officials reported that the Coal Seam fire had claimed just over 11,500 acres, up from nearly 11,000 Tuesday evening.

Dombrowski said fire-fighting crews will concentrate on the northern area of the fire today.

“We’ll keep flanking it from behind until we can pinch it off,” he said.

Detailed maps of the wildfire’s progress came courtesy of Chris Pratt of Mid-Valley Helicopter, based in Jefferson, Ore.

The maps “allow a team to make better decisions on what’s out there,” he said.

“Once we get a better handle on what’s happening, we can release resources to other fires,” Dombrowski said.

Resources such as two “Type 1” helicopters arrived in Glenwood yesterday. The aircraft are a hot commodity in Colorado, considering the state’s current wildfire conditions, and local officials hope to lend them out as soon as possible.

A heavy-duty helicopter known as a Skycrane caused a few traffic jams throughout the day during its continuous trips to the Colorado River. The Skycrane can draw nearly 1,000 gallons of water in just over a minute, then store it during its brief flight to a wildfire sight. A second helicopter, equipped with an 800-gallon bucket, also spurred a few residents to snap photos as it dipped into the Colorado and headed toward the Coal Seam hot spots.

“We’re getting a lot of good use out of that airshow,” Dombrowski said. A total of two air tankers and three helicopters are currently fighting the Coal Seam fire.

The borrowed helicopters proved expensive for Glenwood Springs – officials estimate the cost of fire-fighting efforts has reached $1.4 million.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has pledged to pay for 75 percent of the city’s costs.

Jamie Connell, a U.S. Forest Service district ranger from Dillon, and Jennifer Gallegos of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management spent Wednesday observing the helicopters’ payloads and touring the perimeter of the Coal Seam fire.

Connell seemed optimistic about the day’s progress.

“The activity is contained within the perimeter of the fire, thanks to the efforts of the firefighters – and the weather,” she said.

Gallegos agreed, surveying a map that outlined the breaks in the fire line made by bulldozers and hand crews.

“It’s not actively going – there are just little hot spots around the edges,” she said. “Right now they’re working on tying in the lines and making sure it doesn’t go any farther south and west.”

The weather might be cooperative again today – the forecast calls for much of the same conditions as Tuesday and Wednesday, with only a slight wind in the morning. Unfortunately, the humidity rate is expected to be only 7 percent, which officials say “can increase fire activity earlier in the day.”

Despite the overall threat to homes surrounding the city, Glenwood Springs residents seemed to have returned to their usual routines Wednesday. Red Cross volunteers announced that only 45 people remain at the Colorado Mountain College’s temporary shelter – down from nearly 100 Tuesday – and that most have returned to their homes to make damage estimates.

The Glenwood Springs Mall was among a group of businesses in West Glenwood – just a few miles down the highway from the fire-ravaged Robin Hood Mobile Home Park – that opened their doors for the first time since Saturday’s evacuation order.

Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri mentioned during a Wednesday evening press conference that the rest of the country should also know that Glenwood Springs is open for business.

“It’s really important that we get the message out,” he said. “It’s a beautiful night in Glenwood Springs, and I think people need to know that.”