In Buffalo Mountain Fire, critical decisions saved at least two neighborhoods from destruction

Deepan Dutta
Summit Daily
Summit County Sheriff Lieutenant Tom Whelan shakes hand with an evacuee returning to his home in the Wildernest neighborhood Thursday, June 14, near Silverthorne. The sheriff's office has lifted the mandatory evacuation order on Thursday for the upper half of the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighborhoods under pre-evacuation notice.
Hugh Carey /

The Buffalo Mountain Fire seems a lot less angry a day after it exploded into the sky Tuesday morning. The fire peaked at 91 acres and forced the evacuation of nearly 1,400 homes, but did not grow at all overnight and did not take lives or damage structures. However, the fire remains very much active, and officials are not taking any chances on lifting evacuation orders until they can make sure lives and homes are safe from danger.

From the moment the fire started, wildland firefighters have been focusing on attacking it from the southeast corner, where it threatened to engulf the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighborhoods. Firefighting efforts yielded conditions safe enough for Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino and Dillon district ranger Bill Jackson to escort a media cadre up the mountain to observe the aftermath of day one.

Reporters got close enough to see hotspots flare up from smoldering logs and have their noses singed by ashy soot from burning pine. The rocky, log-strewn ground surrounding the neighborhoods has turned to a brown, black and pink hellscape, carpet bombed over and over by air tankers dropping fire retardant and water. Firefighters have dug a thin, brown fire line to separate the burning forest from untouched homes standing on the edge of man’s encroachment into the wild.

Chief Berino said the fire came right up to the edge of the neighborhood and threatened several homes. It then started doing things that fires are not supposed to do, such as running downhill. At one point it threatened to spread onto a sliver of county open space that ran between two high-density condo developments.

“If that happened, it would have been a tactical nightmare,” Berino said amid the buzz of chainsaws and the thumping of helicopter blades. “It split our response across two subdivisions instead of focusing on one. Fortunately, when we got assistance from federal and county partners, we were able to split up our resources and attack.”

Berino said one critical factor in saving the neighborhoods was the massive aerial response he ordered, which involved four heavy air tankers, two very large DC-10 air tankers, and a half dozen Type I and Type III helicopters. Berino said that the air response came with a steep price tag, with the DC-10s costing up to $50,000 an hour to operate and the helicopters running an $8,000-an-hour bill as they dropped 1,000-gallon buckets of water on hotspots. Berino said the first day’s air campaign alone probably cost up to half a million dollars, but said that it was worth every penny.

“Just look behind us,” Berino said, gesturing toward the unburned, untouched homes and condos worth many millions littering the hillside. “All of that could have gone up in smoke.”

Berino also mentioned that aside from one minor injury, no one has been seriously hurt by the fire thus far.

The other key to saving Mesa Cortina and Wildernest were fuel breaks dug in by the U.S. Forest Service back in 2011. These fuel breaks — 500-foot-wide flat land buffers cleared of trees and other fuels — were created in response to the mountain pine beetle epidemic, which killed 3.4 million acres of forest across the state and half the trees in Summit County from 2006 to 2014.

“Back in 2011 and 2012, the Forest Service spent $1 million to treat 900 acres in this area alone,” Jackson said. “These fuel breaks create an area for firefighters to engage the fire from in a safe location. In this case, if that fire had managed to run down the back of the neighborhood, we would have had to back off because it would have been way too hot. But this buffer gave us room to work with helps moderate fire behavior quite a bit.”

Jackson said that these decisions made in the past have saved lives in the present, proving a big investment can lead to even larger returns in the future.

“Since the bark beetle epidemic, the Forest Service has been aggressive with fuel treatments in Summit County and across the Dillon Ranger District,” Jackson said. “We spent over $12 million in treatments across 12,000 acres all across the county.”

Officials announced Wednesday afternoon that evacuated residents would be allowed to return to their homes temporarily from 7 to 10 p.m. in the evening to access their homes and retrieve belongings, but the area will remain evacuated until another assessment is made early Thursday morning. As of Wednesday evening, the fire was at 20 percent containment with a hose line around the entire fire.