Smoke jumpers headed home

Naomi HavlenAspen Times Staff Writer

Smoke jumpers were preparing Thursday evening to leave the scene of a small wildfire that scorched two acres of land north of the Old Snowmass Conoco on Wednesday evening.Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said the firefighters, based in Grand Junction, were scheduled to be airlifted out of Wheatley Gulch. The jumpers arrived in the area Wednesday night and quickly contained the small blaze.”A helicopter will be extracting the jumpers,” Thompson said. “They are working with cliffs on both sides, and they carry so much equipment that it’s hard to get it uphill.”An air tanker aided the firefighters by dropping two loads of fire retardant into the area. With the current dry conditions even a small fire can escalate quickly, officials said.There is evidence that two lightning strikes from Monday’s brief thunderstorm caused the fire, which apparently smoldered for two days, Thompson said. There are no developments close to that area, which is on both Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service property.Residents of Lower River Road reported seeing smoke in the area, notifying authorities of the blaze. Since there is a ban on any type of burning, Thompson encourages the public to report any smoke to authorities.This is the first time this summer that the smoke jumpers have been summoned to this area, although they usually are called here once or twice a year, Thompson said. The Upper Colorado River Interagency, a joint effort of the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, has 170 staff members stationed in Grand Junction during the summer to be called to the scene of wildfires.The Grand Junction units arrived at Wheatley Gulch just under two hours after officials were first notified of the blaze.”There is certainly evidence that this is shaping up to be an even worse fire season than 2000 was, and 2000 was a record-setting year,” said Pete Blume, a unit fire management officer with the Interagency. “There are records for the most fires in a year, and the most acres burned in a year, and 2000 was thought of as a record year in both categories.”Most notably, Blume said the jumpers were stationed in Grand Junction earlier than in previous years: 30 firefighters were brought from their training center in Boise, Idaho, to Grand Junction during the second week of May, rather than early June.Blume said that the Wheatley Gulch fire was a “small fire,” but his unit also responds to summer blazes where just a tree or two are engulfed in flames. The future of wildfires in Colorado could also depend on the summer’s rainstorms.”Certainly the long-term weather will play into it,” Blume said. “Typically in late July the monsoon develops – it’s hardly the monsoon like you’d see on the equator, but it would take us from a severe to a more normal fire season. I hope that’s the case this year.”


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