Residents return to Missouri Heights | AspenTimes.com

Residents return to Missouri Heights

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Engine 3 of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department sprays the shoulder of Grange Lane in Missouri Heights after the Panorama fire swept through the area destroying the home of Leda Brewer leaving only her cookstove THursday afternoon July 31, 2002. Brewer, and avid climber, lived in a teepee which has not been considered one of the homes destroyed by the fire. Paul Conrad photo.

Evacuees from the Panorama fire on Missouri Heights were allowed to return home Thursday afternoon.

By 4 p.m. crews had cut fire lines around 95 percent of the fire’s perimeter. The only section not contained was in a swampy area of Cattle Creek, according to Barry Smith, one of three incident commanders.

In all, two houses and a teepee were consumed by the flames. Another house was badly damaged, and several outbuildings were lost. Giant steel beams lay twisted in the blackened, smoldering foundation of one home in the Homestead Acres subdivision, located immediately west of the Spring Park Reservoir. The fire was hot enough around the house to liquefy the aluminum body of a snowmobile. Hardened puddles of metal lay next to the outlines of what were once the front skis on the machine.

The majority of homes in the area survived the blaze, although some were charred by flames that ran right up to the walls. In the hardest-hit areas, residents returned to a badly charred landscape with blackened soil and spindly, leafless trunks of the scrub oak that normally colors the area green. Some homes remained without electricity or phone service.

The fire started at a construction site at 805 Buck Point Road in the Panorama Estates subdivision about 1 p.m. Wednesday and quickly spread east toward heavily populated areas above El Jebel.

Investigators from the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office are focusing on the use of a saw to cut steel and iron support bars known as rebar. The saw was being used by a concrete worker from Mendoza Concrete, based in Carbondale.

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Sheriff Tom Dalessandri said felony or misdemeanor charges are likely to be filed against one or more employees at the firm, and possibly its owner, within the next few days (see related story).

More than 300 people were evacuated Wednesday afternoon as firefighters from communities throughout the area moved in to save buildings. By the end of the day Wednesday, the fire had spread across approximately 1,600 acres.

As darkness fell, the incident command team called for help from the federal and state governments. Two teams of hand crews – a total of 40 wildland fire specialists – were dispatched to assist local firefighters with what was threatening to become one of the most destructive fires this year.

Hundreds of homes worth millions of dollars are located in the north end of Missouri Heights where the fire was burning. Cool weather and increasing humidity Wednesday night combined with extremely light winds to give firefighters the upper hand. By midmorning Thursday, the fire was 70 percent contained, up from zero containment the night before. The federal crews were called off.

“Local commanders felt they could handle it themselves, at least for the time being,” Dalessandri said Thursday morning.

The same flat, open terrain that allowed the fire to spread rapidly also allowed firefighters to gain the upper hand. Missouri Heights, which runs along the north side of Highway 82 from El Jebel to the outskirts of Glenwood Springs, is made up of plateaus and valleys. The open exposure means the scrub oak, juniper, sage brush and other fuels bake in the sun all day, everyday, making them more combustible.

“This thing would have been much more horrific if there had been winds – it spread over nearly 1,600 acres without any wind,” Dalessandri said.

But the geography also allowed firefighters easy access to hot spots. The steep, treacherous terrain that hampered firefighters in the Coal Seam fire last month near Glenwood Springs was not a factor with the Panorama fire. By the time winds picked up yesterday afternoon, the fire was mostly contained.

Smith said firefighters and utility crews continued to work into the evening yesterday to mop up and restore services.

The fact that the feds were called off will have no effect on the availability of federal assistance.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration awarded its 17th fire management assistance grant of 2002 to the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District, the lead agency in the Panorama fire. That means that up to 75 percent of the cost of fighting the blaze will be reimbursed by the federal government.

To put 2002’s fire season into perspective, FEMA spokesman Gary Gleason said the previous record year for fire management assistance grants was in 2000, when three were awarded. The agency had only awarded eight over the course of the past 10 years.

Homeowners and renters affected by the fire are also eligible for federal aid because Eagle and Garfield counties are among the 54 counties statewide that President Bush declared federal disaster areas.

Michael Mattson, FEMA’s community relations director in Glenwood Springs, said grants and loans are available to repair damaged or destroyed structures, especially for those who are underinsured.

“Our main goal is to get people back to normal as soon as possible,” Mattson said.

Fire victims can apply for federal assistance by calling 1-800-621-3362.

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]

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