Wildfire erupts in Old Snowmass | AspenTimes.com

Wildfire erupts in Old Snowmass

Scott Condon and Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A fire erupted in the Snowmass Creek Valley Thursday when high winds apparently toppled a tree onto a power line near the vacation home of Disney CEO Michael Eisner, according to Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis.

Wind gusts above 50 mph spread the fire across 10 acres by 1 p.m., just an hour or so after it was reported, authorities said. The fire jumped Snowmass Creek Road onto public lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The swirling wind and thick smoke made it difficult to gauge the exact size of the fire. Estimates by the sheriff’s office placed it at 25 acres by nightfall.

Between five and 10 homes “were in danger” at one point during the afternoon from the fire, according to Pitkin County Deputy Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. None of the homes burned, he said. One ramshackle shed was destroyed.

By nightfall the fire was blowing away from the homes. However, Braudis said the fire remained a hazard because of the winds were constantly shifting direction. Firefighters said lower temperatures and higher humidity kept the fire contained in a bowl in the terrain.

“It just whips up depending on the winds,” said DiSalvo. The horrific scenario playing out in California was on the minds of authorities, he said.

The sheriff’s office ordered evacuation of homes within one mile of the fire and advised people within two miles to leave the area. For the first time ever, the county used the reverse 911 system, which in an emergency automatically calls homeowners by means of a computer system and conveys a message.

By late afternoon the area’s residents were allowed back into their homes. County Manager Hilary Smith said if the fire shifted direction during the night, the 911 system would be used again to warn residents.

By 5:30 p.m. most of the fire teams left the area, leaving a skeleton crew to keep watch on the closest structures until suppression efforts begin anew at daybreak. Authorities said there was little firefighters could do Thursday night as the flames crept into steep, heavily timbered slopes on the north side of Snowmass Creek Road.

On Thursday afternoon deputies were not allowing the public into the area, but because it was a voluntary evacuation residents were not forced to leave their homes. Some homeowners were allowed to retrieve pets and attend to horses. Valley residents volunteered pasture space for animals taken out of the fire’s path.

Smoke was thick in the air in along Snowmass Creek, and steady winds pushed the haze north down the road. The sun backlit clouds of smoke at times, turning them an orange/red color near the fire staging area.

The fire put a pre-Halloween scare into residents in the rural but relatively high-density neighborhoods of Shield O Terrace and Shield O Mesa. In the afternoon as smoke billowed up, homeowners watched and plotted their next actions (see related story).

About 55 firefighters from Snowmass Village, Basalt, Aspen and Carbondale were on the scene.

Federal firefighting crews were expected to arrive on the scene late yesterday. The firefighting effort was going to be transferred to federal agencies at 6 a.m. this morning.

Braudis said the fire was never close to Eisner’s house although firefighters extinguished flames on his sprawling property. He said a Snowmass Village firefighter reported seeing a downed tree on power lines. He stressed that until an investigation is completed, it’s only speculation that the downed line caused of the fire.

Braudis said he didn’t know if anyone was home at the Eisner residence at the time of the blaze. The fire was reported to the communications center by multiple parties around noon Thursday. Although the air was already thick with smoke from Front Range blazes, a clear plume was visible from the Snowmass Creek fire, according to reporting parties.

An Aspen Ski Company employee who asked to remain anonymous was one of the first to report seeing smoke and flames. On Thursday afternoon, he stood on the edge of Divide Road in Snowmass Village watching the smoke billowing off the hillside. He said it was in almost the exact same place he first spotted the fire.

“I was coming over the hill while working and I saw a poof of smoke go up, and then I saw another poof,” he said. “I could see flames ” they must have been about 6-foot flames to be seen that far away.”

Snowmass Village firefighters checked on the reports and quickly sought assistance, officially called mutual aid, from Basalt firefighters, who have more direct access from the Old Snowmass area. Additional help was eventually requested from Aspen and Carbondale.

The high winds prevented federal agencies from sending in slurry bombers or helicopters with buckets of water.

A second tree fell on a power line along Snowmass Creek Road about two miles from Highway 82 at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

Power was out throughout Snowmass Creek Valley after the second tree fell. Braudis said power had been deliberately shut off in the upper section of the valley for the safety of firefighters. It was unclear if the second downed tree knocked power out or if it was shut off.

A lack of moisture in the western United States and erratic wind patterns have put most fire districts on guard. Just before the Snowmass Creek Fire was discovered, Snowmass Deputy Fire Chief John Mele said the local departments were “stretched to capacity.”

“The fire departments are having to work together to watch each other’s backs in case something happens,” Mele said.

Four Type-3 fire trucks from the Roaring Fork Valley were sent to California this week to help fight the devastating wildfires that have destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 20 people. Aspen’s fire chief, Darryl Grob, said Thursday that he doesn’t regret that decision.

“We sent that engine because it was the right thing to do ” there are thousands of people out there undergoing a disaster,” he said. “I feel strongly that it was appropriate.”

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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