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Nature throws a curve

Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly
AP | The Aspen Times

Consider it natural disaster du jour for the Roaring Fork Valley this spring.Many residents suspect flooding is what they need to fear in 2008, but Mother Nature threw a curve this week by creating conditions ripe for a wildfire.It was scary, said Silbi Stainton, a resident of the Mayfly Bend subdivision about 1.5 miles east of Carbondale. The small subdivision along the Roaring Fork River was in the direct path of the blaze, which erupted shortly after noon Tuesday, April 15.The fire ultimately burned about 1,000 acres before it was declared fully contained Wednesday morning. It threatened 300 homes, forced the evacuation of between 150 and 200 residents and prevented an untold number from returning to their homes, according to Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach. Highway 82 was closed for several hours between Carbondale and El Jebel, frustrating commuters who had limited information about the calamity.Four homes, each in a different area, received minor damage when flying embers sparked shingles or flames licked siding. It was something you think youll never see, Stainton said.That sentiment was echoed countless times this week by people surprised that such a fire could erupt after a winter that coated the valley in near-record snowfall. Many locals havent taken the snow tires off their vehicles yet, and many are still feeling the wintertime blues from so many dreary days. Old Man Winter stubbornly refuses to be ushered out the door, as illustrated by the snowstorm that passed through one day after the blaze erupted.

Dont be fooled by the snowpackNevertheless, conditions became ripe for a wildland fire in the lower and middle valley in recent weeks. Dont be fooled by the snowpack, said Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach.Recent warm weather has dried out dead grasses, brush and other ground cover, he said. Most new vegetation wont sprout or green up for another few weeks.

I would say the fire danger is going to remain high until the end of April, Leach said.Even though the grasses and ground cover are dry, the County Road 100 fire spread with a ferocity that surprised even veteran firefighters. Ron Baar, a longtime volunteer with the Aspen Fire Department, was a safety officer with the Incident Command on the midvalley fire.Normally a cottonwood will not burn, Baar said. Its soaked with moisture. Thats whats unusual about this.But burn they did. Dozens if not hundreds of cottonwoods were scorched along the main path of the fire, which Baar estimated at about 1.5 miles long. The fire created a checkerboard pattern in some areas leaping from one area to another and leaving islands of green grass and other vegetation in a sea of black, charred landscape. In other areas, like parts of the Roaring Fork Preserve subdivision and along Blue Creek, completely scorched earth is all thats left.Throughout the burn path there are numerous charred trunks of cottonwood trees, which thrived in the wetlands along the Roaring Fork. Some burned from the ground up, while others caught fire 30 to 40 feet off the ground and burned to the top. There is a risk that high winds will snap them off where they burned through, Baar said. Firefighters call such standing dead trees widow makers because of the danger they pose to people below.The Carbondale Fire Department and Garfield County Sheriffs Office have urged property owners to hire arborists to assess their damaged trees. The fire was entirely contained to private land, so tree-removal falls to individual property owners.



High winds, smoldering embersBaar said the key to understanding the County Road 100 fire was the wind. April 15 was unseasonably warm and high winds materialized around mid-morning and gusted to 50 mph throughout the day.The recipe for disaster was there, said Leach.Authorities believe the fire started east of the Carbondale rodeo grounds in a pasture along County Road 100, also known as Catherine Store Road.The Garfield County Sheriffs Office investigated the incident of the fire and has determined that the Carbondale County Road 100 Fire was not the result of arson or a malicious act, the office said in a statement. The event started when excessive winds exposed the smoldering embers below the surface of a controlled burn in the area, which began spreading the embers from the immediate controlled burn area.Residents of the neighborhood said a property owner burned leaves and old wood in a pasture on Sunday, then allegedly left the debris unattended. The Garfield County Sheriffs Office announced Thursday that no charges were being contemplated at that time against the individual responsible for the smoldering debris, but the investigation wasnt over.Swirling winds ignited grass on the south side of County Road 100 near the old Mid-Continent coal loading facility, but fire crews contained that outbreak to a small patch.

For the most part, the fire spread to the east and northeast from the area of origin, Leach said. Roaring Fork Preserve, a new subdivision where two houses are under construction, was in the immediate path of the fire. Mayfly Bend subdivision, tucked between Roaring Fork Preserve and the river, was also directly affected.Stainton said she smelled smoke at about 12:15 p.m. and went outside to investigate. She found thick smoke clogging the air. I knew this wasnt someone burning irrigation ditches. This was something else, she said.She loaded her two children, ages two and four, along with the cat and dog, and picked one of three roads exiting her subdivision. A wind-whipped fire ball was moving through the area, she explained, literally flying from one tree to another.Flames danced and smoke billowed on both sides of her escape route, sometimes obscuring her vision. They made it safely to County Road 100 and into Carbondale, where Stainton left her kids with family and pets at a kennel. She returned to her house late in the afternoon and found it, along with the neighbors houses, charred on all four sides, but undamaged.Stainton said the metal roof and concrete decks probably prevented her house from igniting. She also credited the fire crews.Rather than a miracle it was just hard work by the firefighters, she said.When Silbi returned to her home, she joined her husband, Tim, and neighbors to help put out remaining hot spots and flare-ups. They used garden hoses and buckets dipped in the river to douse flames and smoldering wood. The firefighters did 99 percent of the work, she said.




I could feel the heat behind meCarbondale Fire Chief Leach knew as soon as he saw the fire that it spelled trouble in the high winds, so he put in a call for aid from Basalt Fire Department.Both departments had multiple crews and engines in the field protecting structures south of the Roaring Fork River. During the chaos of that effort, the wind cast embers across the river and sent the fire toward Ranch at Roaring Fork, a subdivision with 90 single-family homes and 160 condominiums scattered around a golf course.Thick smoke shrouded the subdivision and ash floated down, then fire seemed to explode out of the smoke at about 1:15 p.m., threatening homes on the neighborhoods west end The fire also moved east along Blue Creek, a heavily wooded area between Aspen Equestrian Estates and the Finnbar subdivisions, north of the Roaring Fork and south of Highway 82. One newer house in the estates had burn marks in four places where embers ignited wood shake shingles and siding.Later that afternoon, the fire managed to jump to the north side of Highway 82, at the base of Missouri Heights. Firefighters scrambled to prevent it from running up the steep slopes into the numerous rural subdivisions there.Ranch at Roaring Fork homeowner Catherine Gros said she got a call from the ranch manager urging her to evacuate. She and her husband keep a suitcase packed with essential paperwork and personal items, so she loaded that and other possessions into her vehicle and moved it closer to the subdivisions entrance to Highway 82. She then joined two neighbors to move 11 horses that belong to ranch residents to pastures farthest to the east, away from the most immediate danger.Once the horses were secure, Gros decided to walk toward the river, where she heard a lot of snapping and crackling, to investigate. But she soon hightailed it back when she discovered the wind was whipping the flames toward her.I could feel the heat behind me. I could feel it and hear it, but I never looked back, Gros said. She and the other two women continued moving the horses to places that were safest at the time. At 3 p.m., a pasture where they had been a short time before went up in flames.I have never, never been in that much danger before, Gros said.In the subdivision, residents helped one another soak their houses with garden hoses and with whatever other preparations were necessary.It was really a community effort, Gros said. It was remarkable.A shed was the only casualty in the subdivision.It could have been much worse, Gros said.Leach expressed the same sentiment in a press conference after the fire was contained. A heroic effort by firefighters prevented a loss of property and possibly lives, he said. About 150 people from 50 agencies, ranging from fire crews to law enforcement, helped in the effort.The cost of fighting the fire was estimated at $100,000.scondon@aspentimes.com

Man acted on impulse to save homeCary Hahn used a small garden hose and nerves of steel to prevent his familys home in the Ranch at Roaring Fork subdivision from burning April 15.Hahn was home alone when he heard his neighbor yelling that a fire was approaching the house where he lives with his parents. I thought it was a little fire, said Hahn, 33.But when he emerged from the house he was greeted by flames 20 feet high that crackled in the brush and leapt toward the house. Many people would have fled under the circumstances, but Hahn instinctively grabbed the garden hose, wet himself down and started spraying the house and yard. He also had a gas mask.I made the decision on fight or flight right away, Hahn said. I was acting on impulse. There was no time to be scared.Aspen Times photographer Paul Conrad captured a shot of the flames soaring over the Hahns residence at about 1:15 p.m. Tuesday, right before Cary went into action. The house, the furthest to the west on Surrey Road in the subdivision, was directly in the path of the County Road 100 fire. The fire started on the south side of the Roaring Fork River , southwest of the subdivision, but strong winds propelled it across the river and, later, Highway 82. Initially, firefighters were concentrated in threatened areas on the south side of the river.Several homeowners in Ranch at Roaring Fork started wetting down their property as the flames drew near.The angle of the photo made the flames appear closer than they were, Hahn said, but the fire was close enough to ignite the siding of the house. He spent two hours putting out hotspots on the house and in the yard. The wind, which gusted above 50 mph, hurled sparks and embers around for hours.If I wouldnt have stuck around the house would have burned, Hahn said. Im glad I stayed. Scott Condon

Tuesday, 12:05 p.m. Carbondale Fire Department receives the first call of a fire out of control 1.2 miles east of Carbondale on County Road 100. Tuesday, 12:30 p.m. Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach realizes he has a fight on his hands, and calls for aid from Basalt Fire Department. Tuesday, approximately 1:15 p.m. After sweeping through the area north of County Road 100 and south of the Roaring Fork River, the blaze leaps the river and spreads toward Ranch at Roaring Fork subdivision and Aspen Equestrian Estates. Authorities close Highway 82 and divert traffic through upper Missouri Heights. Tuesday, 2:40 p.m. Fire jumps Highway 82 to the base of Missouri Heights. Tuesday night Incident commanders declare the fire 25 percent contained; winds die down at midnight. One lane in each direction is reopened on Highway 82. Wednesday morning Cool weather with snow flurries helps the fire-fighting effort. Firefighters declare the blaze 100 percent contained. All evacuation orders and travel restrictions lifted. Thursday, noon Garfield County Sheriffs Office says the fire started when a controlled burn from a prior day flared up. Although the investigation continues, no criminal charges are being contemplated at this time.


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