Youths questioned in Battlement blaze |

Youths questioned in Battlement blaze

Heather McGregor

Federal firefighters spent Monday mopping up hot spots from a wildfire that charred 156 acres of open space and burned nine houses in Battlement Mesa on Sunday afternoon.

“This was not the biggest fire we’ve seen here, but it is the most property value loss we’ve sustained in our fire district’s history,” said Dave Blair, chief of the Grand Valley Fire Protection District.

Damages could easily top $1.5 million, he estimated. No one was hurt in the blaze.

Garfield County authorities interviewed an 11-year-old boy Sunday about the cause of the fire, and his information pointed the investigation toward a 14-year-old boy, said Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ron VanMeter.

“The investigation is ongoing, and we really can’t release any more information now,” VanMeter said Monday.

The fire is believed to have started on the west side of Monument Gulch, behind mobile homes on Smokey Hill Court. From there, it spread south and east in an E-shaped formation, turning desert scrub, stands of pion and juniper trees and several vacant lots black.

Homes that burned were on the ends of cul-de-sacs that rim Monument Gulch and the steep slopes that drop down to the Colorado River. Fickle winds blew the flames toward some homes, then shifted and sent the fire in another direction.

John Wenter, who lived on Cottonwood Court, said the fire came so fast that he and his wife, Brandy, barely had time to escape.

When he first saw smoke in the ravine he called 911, then went to get his boots on so he could start watering his home. But in the time it took to put on his boots, the fire spread across the gulch and flames were licking at the west wall of Wenter’s home.

His wife was showering at the time, and she fled the house in her bathrobe. When she glanced out the bedroom window, Wenter said, “all she saw was flames, and the blinds were melting.”

“When we were backing out of the garage, her Suzuki was on fire,” he added. Wenter’s two collectible cars, a 1963 Land Rover and a 1981 Jaguar, were also burned down to the metal.

“We got out alive. That’s what counts,” he said.

On Monday, a pair of locksmiths were busy trying to open two safes Wenter had in his home.

The New Orleans couple built their home on Cottonwood Court seven years ago. “We’ll probably rebuild. But if my wife feels unsafe here, then we won’t,” he said.

Nearby, a Public Service Co. of Colorado crew was at work replacing the tall poles that hold up the utility’s 230-kilovolt Cameo-to-Parachute power line. Holy Cross Energy crews were also at work repairing burned power poles for Battlement Mesa’s distribution system.

At the Battlement Mesa Activity Center, Red Cross disaster team leader Starr Edinger of Battlement Mesa helped coordinate aid efforts along with colleagues called in from Grand Junction.

She left her home on Locust Way Sunday afternoon fully expecting it to burn down. “The fire was right up to my back door, and I thought it would be a goner,” she said. “The fire was roaring and there was a big fireball.”

She dropped her pets off at a motel room in Parachute and then shifted into gear as a disaster coordinator. Edinger ordered the evacuated residents to go to the Battlement Mesa Activity Center where they could rest and try to relax while waiting to be allowed to go home.

Center staffers responded wholeheartedly, coming back to work and helping to make people comfortable.

Edinger found out late Sunday that her home was spared. She was back again on Monday, helping those who lost their homes.

Firefighters worked until midnight on Sunday, and were back on the job at 6 a.m., said firefighter Brett Taylor, of the federal Colorado River Fire Crew.

“It was extremely windy, and the fire was blowing in different directions,” he said of the Sunday afternoon battle.

Fire Chief Blair said the fire spread so fast at first that local volunteer firefighters had to make the safety of residents and firefighters their first priority.

“We had flames 30 to 40 feet in the air and winds at 15 to 20 mph. We had two crews of four people, and there was no way to combat a fire like that,” he said.

“I wish we were able to do more,” said Ed Baker, assistant chief of the Parachute-Battlement Mesa Fire Department.

“We’ve seen fires as bad as this before, but none with houses in front of them. The wind was so intense, the fire was crowning in the trees and moving faster than a person could run to get away,” Baker said.

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