G’wood fire crews need air support | AspenTimes.com

G’wood fire crews need air support

Jeremy Heiman

Fire officials assigned to the South Grizzly fire north of Glenwood Springs have designed a double strategy to attempt to bring the fire under control.

Leaders of the New Mexico-based incident management team hope to use one or more helicopters to douse areas where the fire is spreading while using ground-based firefighters to contain the main fire. The fire did not advance much Wednesday because of cloudy skies and light winds, but officials say the fire could quickly become more dangerous if conditions change.

“The biggest factor in retarding the spread of this fire has been cloudiness and the lack of high winds,” said Tim Stubbs, air attack supervisor and fire behavior analyst for the New Mexico team. There were a few times in the past few days when those factors weren’t present, Stubbs said. “And boy, we saw that fire start to move.”

Stubbs said the strategy has been adopted because, while ground crews have finally arrived to combat the fire, few helicopters are available.

“We finally got enough people to do something about it. But we need more air support,” Stubbs said.

Ground crews from as far away as Massachusetts and Virginia were at the fire site, and six 20-person crews from Oregon arrived to fight the fire Wednesday. A total of 218 firefighters worked to dig and cut a fire line to contain the fire.

Yesterday, the fire was generally on steep slopes within a “V” shaped area, with its apex toward the east, defined by South Grizzly Creek on the south, and Grizzly Creek to the north. To the east lies a gentle slope partly covered with aspens, not likely to burn because of their moisture content. But to the south of the fire lies a slope with almost continuous spruce/fir forest.

Incident commander Sammy Bustamante, leader of the New Mexico team, said yesterday the biggest threat could be fire spreading to that slope. As of Wednesday afternoon, three or four small fires, started by coals blown from the main fire, burned south of South Grizzly, posing a threat to the timbered slope above.

“We need to get helicopters on those spots south of South Grizzly, first,” Bustamante said.

But getting helicopters is easier said than done. With numerous fires burning in Colorado and other western states, firefighting resources are spread thin.

The South Grizzly fire, because it threatens the watershed which provides domestic water for Glenwood Springs, has been moved up in priority to the second position in the state, behind only the Bircher fire at Mesa Verde. It was hoped that this increased priority would help the team get air support, but it hasn’t yet materialized.

Air operations director Joe Bistryski said Wednesday morning he hoped to have two large helicopters on the fire by later in the day. But as the day wore on, expectations were whittled down to one helicopter. By late afternoon, information officer Marcia Garcia conceded that helicopters would not be at the fire until at least Thursday.

Because of the threat of contamination of Grizzly Creek water, fire retardant chemicals, usually dropped from fixed wing aircraft, are not being used on the fire. Air tankers based in Grand Junction did drop retardant Sunday, before the fire had burned near the creeks, but they were grounded Monday.

Bistryski said air tankers would only be used again if the fire travels up a ridge away from water.

“Our whole objective is to minimize the effects of this fire – both the area that’s burned and our effects on the watershed,” Bistryski said.

Stubbs said several ponds on the Flat Tops plateau had been designated for filling the huge buckets carried by the helicopters.

“Some ponds are off limits because of fishery resources,” he said. “We’re trying to be sensitive to natural resources and cultural resources.”

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