Buffalo Mountain Fire evacuation lifted, residents return home as firefighters make progress to contain fire | AspenTimes.com

Buffalo Mountain Fire evacuation lifted, residents return home as firefighters make progress to contain fire

Deepan Dutta
Summit Daily

Residents of the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighborhoods came back to homes untouched by fire Thursday afternoon as an evacuation order for the Buffalo Mountain Fire was lifted and replaced with a pre-evacuation notice. As Summit County's first wildfire of the season entered its third day, officials were optimistic that the massive early response and past mitigation efforts worked in keeping people and homes safe.

Authorities announced during a community meeting Wednesday night at the Silverthorne Pavilion that the fire remained at 91 acres and that power and gas had been restored to the neighborhoods. The fire danger in the county was also raised to "very high" as forests continue to dry out and raise the danger of another wildfire exploding in the backcountry.

Residents applauded Incident Commander Jim Genung when he announced that firefighters were progressing well in their attempt to get a hose line around the entire fire. He also said that mop-up operations in neighborhoods at the fire's southeast corner have been successful and there is no imminent threat to homes or people. On Thursday afternoon, the county announced that the fire was approximately 45 percent contained.

Containment refers to how much of the fire's heat perimeter has been surrounded by manually dug fire lines, hose lines or natural barriers. The breaks or barriers create a fuel-free zone to keep the fire from escaping a containment area. Containment percentage rises as firefighters manage to secure more sections of the perimeter. When 100 percent containment is reached, that means firefighters managed to create a protective perimeter around the entire fire.

Containment does not mean the fire has been snuffed out or placed under control. The fire is considered active, even if flames can't be immediately seen at its edges.

The unpredictability of weather, wind and ground conditions make officials wary to tempt fate by prematurely announcing either actual "control" of the fire — when the firefighters have managed to clear fuel around the perimeter, cool hot spots and start moving toward the center — or "extinguishment" — when the fire has been completely knocked down and there are no hot spots left in the containment zone after 48 hours have passed.

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Summit Fire and EMS Chief Jeff Berino said that a few concerns remain in the neighborhood, such as educating residents on how to deal with the pink slurry that was dropped on streets and homes, as well as dry lightning from thunderstorms predicted for this weekend.

However, Berino said he also was looking forward to any rain that can help firefighters — including a hotshot crew from California — get ahead of the fire and get a lasso around it before it gets another chance to grow.

"Helicopters didn't have to drop water on any hotspots near the neighborhoods today, so that's a good sign," Berino said, adding that the rise in fire danger alarmed him. "I've never seen the danger rating get to 'very high' this early in the year. It's the earliest I've seen it reach that in 38 years as a firefighter."

Berino added that crews from Summit Fire and Red, White and Blue had a shift change in the morning, putting fresh troops out into the field while giving the relieved crews some much-needed rest.

"I bet they're back at home asleep right now," Berino said when asked how his firefighters were feeling after a long two days.

Berino added that natural causes for the fire have been ruled out. However, Berino cautioned against any speculation while their investigation is underway.

"We should all be proud of the heroic efforts of firefighters in protecting the Wildernest and Mesa Cortina neighborhoods," County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said. "We should all be relieved and delighted that this fire resulted in no loss of life and no loss of property. This was an amazing team effort involving local, state and federal firefighters and law enforcement, supported by our caring, compassionate and competent network of public agencies, nonprofits and volunteers."

Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and Chief Berino both thanked the community for all the support and well-wishes they offered first responders as they rushed out to meet the fire and keep people safe.

"I want to thank the community for their patience and understanding during this extended event," FitzSimons said. "I worked tirelessly with many collaborative partners to ensure your safety and the protection of your properties. Welcome home!"

Chief Berino said he also was humbled by the community's response, but cautioned residents from getting too comfortable — the fire season has just started.

"We've gotten literally dozens of thank you's, and the community has been showing so much gratitude, they even put up a big thank you sign in front of Silverthorne Elementary," Berino said. "But we need to stay vigilant. This is now the new norm here, and we better get used to more fires in the county. We'll be prepared if and when that happens."

Residents returning to their homes were greeted by sheriff's deputies advising them of several lingering concerns, such as throwing out spoiled food from their fridges after power went out for over 24 hours, as well as indoor air quality from smoke and soot.

Residents are also reminded that they are still under a pre-evacuation notice, meaning they could be asked to evacuate again at a moment's notice if the fire flares back up.

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