Investigators determine Grizzly Creek Fire was ‘human-caused’

Pam Boyd
Vail Daily
A Hot Shot crew builds fireline for the Grizzly Creek Fire.
Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service

It has been a productive seven days for fire crews working the Grizzly Creek Fire, according to members of the Alaska Incident Management Team who spoke at Monday night’s Facebook Live community information meeting.

But the past couple of days have brought significant weather challenges as crews battled the blaze that has burned 32,464 acres — nearly 51 square miles — since it was sparked Aug. 10 on the median of Interstate 70 near the Grizzly Creek rest area. The fire now stands at 73% containment. And, officially, investigators have determined the fire was “human-caused.”

“We’re going to continue to keep that investigation open, but what I can share at this point is our investigators have concluded the fire is human-caused. I think many people realize there wasn’t lightning in the area at that time, and it was started directly adjacent to the interstate in the median,” Lisa Stoeffler, White River National Forest deputy forest supervisor, said Monday night. “Now, there are a couple of things that could cause that. We don’t have the exact cause of the fire yet, but we know it’s human-caused.”

In the past three weeks, officials have alluded to ideas including a cigarette being thrown out a window, a trailer chain dragging and creating sparks, or another ignition source. The fire started about 1:30 p.m. on a clear, hot Monday afternoon and quickly moved up the north side of Glenwood Canyon.

Fuel, topography and weather are the three elements that feed a fire and beginning Sunday, weather was a bigger factor for the Grizzly Creek blaze. According to the official USFS Grizzly Creek Fire incident page, winds that generated gusts as fast as 40 mph created concerns on the fireline Sunday and Monday.

“Today was what we call a test day,” said Chris Moore, a U.S Forest Service fire behavior analyst. But even when the winds picked up, he noted, firelines held.

On Sunday, the Forest Service reported that crews were pulled off the line at 2 p.m. due to the sudden turn in the weather. Windy conditions that lasted approximately an hour threatened to topple fire-weakened trees. Along with the wind, lightning strikes created a dangerous situation for firefighters, but no incidents or injuries were reported and firefighters were able to return to the line about an hour later after the storm passed.

The Forest Service reports that fire managers have focused efforts on an uncontained edge on the fire’s northwest corner in the No Name and Grizzly Creek drainages, about 10 miles northeast of Glenwood Springs. Three hotshot crews are working to connect two sections of open line — one working north along No Name Creek and the other two working back toward them from Grizzly Creek.

Elsewhere around the fire, crews continued to seek and destroy hot spots. Crews also are still trying to secure a rugged, twisty stretch of uncontained line on the south side of the fire near Green Lake. Crews have secured approximately 60 of the 80 miles of containment line and mop-up operations are ongoing.

There are 626 personnel currently working the fire.

Traffic test

Sunday provided a learning opportunity for fire teams and Colorado Department of Transportation workers when an accident occurred along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon.

“Within a matter of minutes, we had a plan to minimize that risk,” said Norm McDonald, incident commander of the Alaska team.

Don Poole from CDOT concurred. While traffic behind the accident was stopped for an extended time, the accident demonstrated that an evacuation of the canyon could be accomplished in 20 minutes, Poole said.

Poole also reported that CDOT personnel have completed an aerial reconnaissance of the I-70 corridor through the burn area and plan to review the data to determine additional rockfall mitigation needs. If additional work is required, it will be completed this fall, Poole said.

He added that the rest areas in the canyon remain closed, both as a practical matter because water and wastewater service must be re-established, and as a safety issue. Right now there are firefighter camps in the rest area locations but beyond that, local emergency management officials want to make sure that a debris slide or flash flood situation doesn’t turn into a search and rescue mission because of recreational users in the area.

Wildlife issues

In response to community concerns about the fire’s effect on local wildlife and upcoming hunting seasons, Matt Yamashita of Colorado Parks and Wildlife was one of the featured speakers at Monday’s meeting.

“Animals have an instinctive ability to evade anything that Mother Nature throws at them,” Yamashita said. He pointed to the experiences of the 2018 Lake Christine Fire, noting that there were no large populations of animals killed in the blaze.

Fire is more of a temporary stress for wildlife, he said, and animals benefit from the aftermath.

“This fire is actually achieving some habitat management objectives,” he said.

On social media, there has been suggestions to leave out buckets of water to assist animals fleeing the fire. That’s not a good idea, Yamashita said.

“Artificially putting out food or water resources isn’t the best thing for wildlife right now,” he said, noting that within just a few weeks, nutritious green shoots of vegetation will be spouting in the burn area.

As for the hunting impacts from the fire area closures, road closures remain in effect for Coffee Pot Road, Transfer Trail Road and areas of the Flattops accessed by those roads along with many surrounding White River National Forest and BLM roads. Full information is available at Yamashita said hunters who drew licenses in Game Unit 34, the area most affected by the Grizzly Creek Fire, have a refund option.

Affected hunters have until the day before their season is slated to start to make a refund request. For additional information, visit or call 970-947-2920 for additional information.

What’s next

According to McDonald, full suppression remains the goal for firefighting teams. Operations Chief John Glover said crews feel comfortable eastward expansion of the fire has been suppressed and teams will continue to work along the northern and south flanks of the blaze, although some of the terrain is not accessible firefighters.

Lisa Stoeffler, deputy supervisor of the White River National Forest, noted that the Alaska team has been on the fire for six days now and at the end of the week, local Forest Service officials and the team leaders will evaluate where to go from there.

“I would expect we will still need some help managing this fire a week from now,” Stoeffler said. “We really want to get through this weather this week.”

The next Facebook Live community meeting is planned Thursday at 6 p.m.