Local wildfires a bad sign | AspenTimes.com

Local wildfires a bad sign

ASPEN Early-morning lightning strikes Friday caused separate wildfires in the hills north of Highway 82 and Lower River Road in Snowmass Canyon – and area officials said it’s a bad sign.”We’re in high fire danger and we’re nearing extreme fire danger,” said Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson.Multiple 911 calls shortly before 3 a.m. alerted Basalt crews to the hilltop fires, Thompson said.”It was just one or two trees, but we kind of jumped on it because we knew we had this wind coming in and this weather [Friday]. We wanted to extinguish it before it spread,” Thompson said.Because the blazes were on federal lands more than a three-hour hike from the highway, Basalt officials contacted federal firefighters in Grand Junction, who provided air support, Thompson said.One fire was on Arbaney, a plot of Bureau of Land Management property; the other was the Wheatley land, which the U.S. Forest Service manages. Both fires were visible from Highway 82 between mile markers 27 and 28 in Snowmass Canyon, Thompson said.According to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, two smoke jumpers parachuted to the Arbany fire at 9:30 a.m., and, 30 minutes later, a helicopter crew ferried three firefighters to the Wheatley blaze. The helicopter then filled a hanging bucket with water from a nearby pond to douse the flames.And, though the fires were easily contained, officials said it is early in the season for wildfires above 8,000 feet. (Ironically, the blazes occurred on the first day of Pitkin County’s fire ban.)Prime conditions”We’re tired. We want some rain. … I’m totally on edge today,” Thompson said Friday.With his crews stretched thin from fighting a fire near New Castle, Thompson is also concerned that conditions are just right for a major fire in the Roaring Fork Valley.”It’s kind of our weather pattern now,” Thompson said.”We’ve got real good fuel-loading right now because of the grasses that grew in the spring. And when those dry out we’re going to have an issue that is tenfold,” Thompson said, adding that small fuels such as grasses are prime for a major fire.And, because developers are pushing homes farther into the high hills, area responders are under stress, Thompson said.”Someday we’re going to have a huge fire. … It’s part of our ecosystem here in the valley,” Thompson said. “There’s some properties we just can’t protect. Unfortunately, we’re going to go to the houses we can defend.”He suggested rural homeowners prune trees, mow grasses, store firewood away from buildings and heed advice on websites such as http://www.firewise.org.”There are so many things fire could devastate in our valley,” Thompson said.”The economics and impacts [of a major fire] would be far-reaching,” Thompson said. “I’m concerned every year because it can happen any year.”And as temperatures increase, the fire danger is moving to higher elevation, Thompson said. Friday’s winds and lightning, coupled with dry weather and heavy fuel load, prompted a red-flag warning from Friday afternoon through 10 that night. And fire bans on BLM and U.S. Forest lands are likely in coming weeks, officials said.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is cagar@aspentimes.com

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