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Smoke jumpers snuff wildfire

Aspen Times Staff Writer

Eleven smoke jumpers parachuted into steep, heavily wooded terrain north of the Old Snowmass Conoco last evening to snuff a small wildfire before it became a problem.

The firefighters from Grand Junction received assistance from an air tanker that dropped two loads of fire retardant onto the blaze in Wheatley Gulch, according to Basalt fire chief Scott Thompson. The Basalt department assisted with fire-fighting efforts.

The fire was contained to two acres but federal agencies based in Grand Junction responded as quickly as they did “to keep it from blowing up,” Thompson said. Conditions are so dry, despite a small amount of rainfall Monday, that there is

a danger of any fire spreading quickly.

Nine fires had consumed an estimated 30,000 acres in southern Colorado as of Tuesday. About 100 homes were charred earlier this week by the Iron Mountain fire near Canon City.

The Wheatley Gulch fire didn’t threaten any structures but it certainly fanned the fears of area residents. Thompson said several residents of Lower River Road called in reports of smoke shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Thompson said firefighters determined that the fire was caused by lightning from a brief storm Monday. The fire smoldered until conditions dried out, then it flared up. The steep hillside is packed with oak brush, aspen and fir trees, Thompson said.

“It’s just a testimonial of how dry the fuels are,” he said.

Four firefighters from Basalt responded to the scene using all-terrain vehicles, then hiking steep ridges. They reported what they found to teams comprised of the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies.

Lower Wheatley Gulch is on BLM land. The upper portion is in national forest.

The smoke jumpers were on the scene before 7 p.m. and the tanker dropped its load of slurry shortly after. The tanker and a spotter plane circled the skies above the midvalley planning their strategy.

Thompson said the smoke jumpers were scratching a fire line and would stay on the scene overnight, then leave when they were convinced the fire didn’t pose a threat. They had ideal conditions to fight the fire Wednesday evening. Unlike many recent evenings, winds were calm.


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