Glenwood fire loses steam, for now | AspenTimes.com

Glenwood fire loses steam, for now

Firefighters said they took a small step toward getting the Coal Seam fire under control yesterday even though it is no longer the highest priority for receiving resources.

The fire, which burned 24 homes and 38 total structures in and around West Glenwood Springs Saturday, grew by about 500 acres to 10,000 acres Monday, according to Justin Dombrowski, public information officer. It was only about 5 percent contained as of last night, he said.

Nine crews of 18 to 20 firefighters each were scratching fire lines around the 21-mile perimeter. Five air tankers dropped fire retardant throughout the morning. They targeted Red Mountain, just to the west of downtown, and the South Canyon area, where the fire originated farther to the west.

Five ground crews were working in South Canyon while two each were establishing fire lines on Red Mountain and in the Mitchell Creek drainage to block the spread of flames. The crews were assisted by five bulldozers.

Volunteer and paid firefighters from towns across the West Slope battled flames and guarded structures through the weekend. Many of those crews were released and sent home Monday. Officials said 68 fire engines were employed during the peak time. About 25 engines remain for structure protection.

That fire-fighting work combined with slightly cooler and less windy weather prevented the fire from growing significantly, said Dombrowski.

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“Basically the fire didn’t take one of those big major runs,” he said. “The fire has been progressing a little bit at a time in many different areas, maybe a little finger goes for a run through 50 acres or 100 acres and just burns slowly back down the hill.”

Authorities determined that the fire no longer posed an “immediate threat” to the town – including the extreme western part of West Glenwood, where the fire ravaged the structures. They lifted the mandatory evacuation of many parts of town.

The slow growth of the Coal Seam fire and its reduced threat to lives and structures coupled with the extreme threat of the Hayman fire in the Front Range dictated a change in the priority system for fire-fighting resources, according to Dombrowski.

“You’ve heard about the big fire over on the other side of Colorado,” Dombrowski said. “That has taken priority over this fire and so have another couple of fires.”

He said federal fire management officials would like to battle the Coal Seam fire with between 30 and 40 crews because its perimeter is so spread out. That’s unlikely to happen.

“It’s going to make it difficult to get other resources,” Dombrowski said. “What we have now may be what we get. We may have other crews come in. We can’t expect any other air resources.

“We should feel fortunate we have what we have now, because we’re going to keep ’em,” he continued. “We’re going to hold on tight to them.”

He said no estimate is available on how long it will take to contain or put out the fire.

Glenwood Springs residents watched the skies throughout the late morning as huge air tankers lead by spotter planes made five passes over Red Mountain.

Tourists and locals watched from the pedestrian bridge over the Colorado River as red payloads of retardant were dumped on a heavily wooded bowl on the east face of Red Mountain.

Later the tankers could be seen banking back to the west over town as they hit the flames in South Canyon.

“Things have gone well today – talking to operations. They’re making some good progress,” Dombrowski said.

A map showed that the fire has engulfed an area about 9 miles long from southwest to northeast. It stretches from South Canyon, on the south side of the Colorado River, to a point more than three miles north of West Glenwood, on the north side of the river.

Smoke rolled from various sources from the mountains north of town throughout the day. Sometimes it just drifted up while other times it was heavy.

Storm King Mountain smoldered even though it was stripped of vegetation just eight years ago. Fourteen firefighters lost their lives when they were overrun by flames fanned by erratic winds in July 1994.

The top half of the mountain burned this time while the short vegetation and grass on the lower half looked deceptively green.

“If you’ve been watching Storm King Mountain, it’s kind of an eerie reminder of eight years ago,” Dombrowski said. “You can see how it’s backing down slowly.”

Residents attending a press conference cheered when a public information officers noted there was no known loss of life among residents or firefighters.

Earlier in the day, a safety officer with the federal fire-fighting team said residents needed to be patient and allow them to study the fire and come up with a plan. Tom Johnston said the ground crews needed clearly discernible escape routes in the steep and often inaccessible terrain.

“It’s really dangerous for firefighters to be up there, and they won’t be unless we can get them somewhere safe, if need be,” he said.

With the threat eased Monday, officials sent vans through neighborhoods that were evacuated, allowing residents to check on their homes and retrieve personal items before taking them back out.

Some residents had nothing to attend to. Dennis Dunlap said the foundation and chimney were all that was left of his Mitchell Creek home. The house was on the hillside above the Robin Hood Mobile Home Park, where eight of 11 trailers were destroyed.

Dunlap first saw the destruction Sunday. He had been braced for bad news based on comments from neighbors.

He was in relatively good spirits Monday because, as he noted, what could he do. He said the outpouring of support from friends, family and even strangers helped him.

“You start talking to your friends,” he said, when asked how he coped. “You go to Wal-Mart and buy clothes since the mall isn’t open.”

In the short term, his insurance company will put him up in a hotel. After that, he will stay with friends and family. In the long term, he will probably rebuild his home.

The Red Cross announced it will assign caseworkers today to families that lost their homes and need assistance figuring out what to do next. Mental health counselors will also be available at the resource center at Glenwood Springs High School.