Spotty showers can’t prevent wildfires in Aspen, Basalt

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Basalt firefighters extinguish flames shooting up a cottonwood tree along the Roaring Fork River near the intersection of Highway 82 and Willits Lane Monday morning.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |

Despite spotty cloudbursts on Sunday, conditions were ripe enough for small wildfires to break out in the mid and upper Roaring Fork Valley.

One fire broke out in cottonwood trees on the banks of the Roaring Fork River Monday at about 8:30 a.m. The fire started in thick brush along the bike path near the intersection of Highway 82 and Willits Lane. Basalt firefighters pounced on it, dousing flames with water and scratching a fire line around it. The fire was under control quickly and the brush was thinned.

Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said it was a human-caused fire. There was a makeshift structure built out of timber in the thicket, he said. There were beer cans in the vicinity. It is suspected that either transients were using the spot or kids were partying there, he said.

No structures were threatened and environmental damage was minimal.

A fire also broke out Sunday afternoon on Richmond Ridge in the Castle Creek Valley, according to the Upper Colorado River Fire Management Center. A lightning strike ignited a tree on a high, steep ridge, a spokesman said. A helicopter dumped water on the fire and the blaze was limited to one-tenth of an acre.

An exact location was unavailable from the fire management center. The fire was in the White River National Forest, the spokesman said. A witness reported it to be upvalley from Elk Mountain Lodge.

The fire management center spokesman said a helicopter was going to dump additional water on the site Monday to make sure it was out.

Thompson said midvalley fire conditions are rated “moderate” because of the lush conditions created by the snowy winter and spotty showers in recent days. Monday’s fire broke out even though the grass was wet, he noted.

Conditions are drying fast. Much of the grass has dried and other vegetation has cured. If the usual summer monsoon hits regularly — bringing precipitation in the afternoons — the fire danger shouldn’t be too bad, he said, but hot, dry weather with windy conditions will raise fire danger.

The Basalt and Carbondale fire departments aren’t making any assumptions about a mellow fire season. Both departments have “roving patrols” in their sprawling, rural districts in the afternoons.

Thompson said Basalt Fire Department started sending out a fire truck equipped to fight wildfires right after July 4. At least two firefighters go on patrol from roughly noon to “8-ish,” he said.

The brush truck patrols areas such as Missouri Heights, Fryingpan Valley, East and West Sopris Creek Roads, Snowmass Creek Road and Capitol Creek Road.

This is the third summer Basalt has undertaken the precautionary program. It is well received by homeowners who often talk to the firefighters when they see them in their neighborhood, Thompson said. Firefighters use the contact as a chance to educate homeowners about creating defensible space around their homes.

It also gives the fire department a good jump in case a fire breaks out in a likely area. “If a lightning storm blows across Missouri Heights, we’ll head up there,” Thompson said.

The cost of the program is about $14,000 to $20,000 per year, depending on how late into the summer the patrols are needed, Thompson said.

The patrols continue until the monsoon hits with regularity or the first frost eases fire danger. Volunteers are recruited for staffing the truck. That holds down expenses.

Basalt Fire Department also sent a brush truck and three firefighters to Oregon to help battle the rash of wildfires in that state. The team departed Thursday evening for the Bridge 99 wildfire, Thompson said.

Carbondale Fire Department is conducting wildfire patrols in the Roaring Fork and Crystal River Valleys thanks to financial donations from residents. The patrols were in jeopardy this summer after voters rejected a proposed tax hike in November. The fire district wasn’t sure it had the funds for the patrols.

Special funding was provided by Les and Abigail Wexner, Sue Rodgers, Bren Simon and others who weren’t named, according to the department.