Lightning starts more wildfires Wednesday

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A lightning storm that moved through the area Wednesday afternoon started almost a dozen new fires in Routt and Moffat counties, further straining resources.

In Routt County, four wildfires were reported around 5 p.m., just after the storm moved through. All three were south of town.

One lightning-sparked fire burned roughly 20 acres in the Grassy Creek area, eight miles south of U.S. 40 on County Road 27. The fire was about a quarter-mile from the main road, on state land leased by Cross Mountain Ranch.

Twenty-seven people, including West Routt and Oak Creek firefighters, Connell Resources heavy equipment operators and other emergency personnel responded to the fire, West Routt Fire Chief Bryan Rickman said.

"We put all the resources we had on it to get it out fast," he said, adding, "There are very, very dry conditions. The stuff that wasn't burned, just a spark and it would go."

In the midst of battling that blaze, the Oak Creek firefighters were called away to deal with another fire lightning struck a single round bale of hay near the intersection of C.R. 27 and C.R. 29. On its way to that fire, the Oak Creek crew came across another blaze that mine workers had just put out in an aspen grove near the intersection of C.R. 27 and C.R. 179, Oak Creek Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup said.

Simultaneously, Steamboat Springs firefighters were called out to another lightning-sparked blaze on C.R. 33, roughly 10 miles south of Steamboat Springs.

That fire only burned a 10-by-25-yard area, largely because landowners saw the blaze and immediately took action to put it out, Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Bob Struble said.

"The homeowners next door jumped on it with a farm tractor They had it contained by the time firefighters arrived," he said.

Struble said he saw a number of lightning strikes even as he was traveling out to the C.R. 33 fire, and speculated about how many more sparks may be smoldering around the county.

"It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next few days," he said. "We could have a bunch burning that we don't know about."

The same Wednesday storm spelled even more trouble for already smoke-filled Moffat and Rio Blanco counties.

There, lightning started at least eight more blazes, on top of the 75 it started Tuesday. Six of Wednesday's new fires were between Rangely and Meeker and two were 35 miles northwest of Maybell. Firefighters were pulled off nearby fires to attack the new starts, said Diann Pipher, fire information officer at the Craig Interagency Dispatch.

At least 28 local U.S. Forest Service employees are helping fight the fires burning in Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, but officials feel Routt County is still protected.

The trouble started Monday when a dry lightning storm started numerous fires in northwest Colorado, most of which were small and easily contained, Pipher said.

However, the biggest of the area fires, the Winter Valley fire burning near Maybell, grew from 150 acres early Tuesday to 6,000 Wednesday and none of it is contained.

"(Tuesday) night, crews back-burned to save power lines and to save structures," Pipher said.

Back-burning is when firefighters intentionally start fires to destroy fuel in places where the blaze is expected to go, hoping the fire's spread will slow when it reaches the barren back-burned area.

Because of those efforts, U.S. 40 was closed two miles east of Elk Springs for part of the day.

But local Forest Service employees have not helped on that fire. Instead, firefighters from the Routt National Forest worked on the Scandard Fire, 25 miles southwest of Meeker. That fire has burned 3,900 acres and is 40 percent contained.

Local firefighters also are snuffing out the Rocky Ridge fire, 20 miles west of Meeker. That fire has burned 20 acres on Colorado Division of Wildlife land.

Kent Foster, the supervisory forester for the Yampa District, said most people who work for the Forest Service have the responsibility to help with fires.

Eighty percent of the people working now are actually firefighters, while the rest help support the fire crews. Between the Yampa District and the Hahn's Peak/Bears Ears district, up to 35 people will be working in the fires any given time until more are under control, Foster said.

Though the help of local firefighters on the blazes is much needed, it does leave Routt County at a certain level of vulnerability, Foster said.

"We're stretched thin but we do have half a dozen people who would be qualified to jump on a fire to determine the need," he said.

Routt County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale is concerned about the fires to the west.

"That's what is causing that haze," Vale said of the overcast sky in Steamboat. "As dry as it is in this county, I can't imagine how dry it is in Moffat."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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