Quick action keeps blazes from 'blowing up'

Landowners aid stretched firefighters

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— Miners and landowners who quickly stepped up to help Wednesday may have been the difference in four blazes started by lightning, said authorities who need all the assistance they can get in trying to protect a dangerously dry Routt County.

Within 20 minutes around 5 p.m. Wednesday, lightning sparked four blazes south of Steamboat Springs. All were controlled by Wednesday night.

"The public actually jumped right on them," West Routt Fire Chief Bryan Rickman said.

The largest was a 20-acre fire, in the Grassy Creek area, eight miles south of U.S. 40 on County Road 27. Oak Creek and west Routt firefighters, as well as heavy equipment operators from Connell Resources, fought the blaze.

"We had it controlled (Wednesday) night. I was just out walking the parameter looking for hot spots," Rickman said Thursday morning.

While fighting that fire, the Oak Creek Fire District was called to extinguish a burning haybale sparked by a lighting strike, near the intersection of C.R. 27 and C.R. 29. On their way to that blaze, crew members came across another fire, near C.R. 27 and C.R. 179, that mine workers had put out themselves.

"Those miners did an excellent job with the fires," Routt County Sheriff John Warner said.

The landowner where the hay bale was burning also spotted the blaze early and made significant efforts to extinguish it, which helped the firefighters, Oak Creek Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup said.

As those three incidents were being dealt with, Steamboat Springs firefighters were called to C.R. 33 to put out a blaze. That fire stayed relatively small because landowners spotted it and started fighting it, right after the lightning struck.

"That's the real key, getting to things right away, before the wind blows them up," Warner said.

Fire officials are expecting to see more multiple starts in the near future and encourage the public to report anything that looks like a wildland fire.

As dry as the county is, all it takes is a lightning strike for a fire to be started, Routt County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale said.

"At least until we get some significant moisture," he said.

Ironically, the lightning storms are actually caused by moisture, hydrometeorological technician Gary Chancy said, but there's just not enough of it for rain to reach the ground before it evaporates.

"We're getting enough moisture to produce a thunderstorm, but that's about it," Chancy said.

He predicted that the afternoon storms will be a common site in the next few months. However, by August some moisture from the south may help fill some of the clouds with more rain.

As far as the fuel-moisture content, oak brush, sage brush and native grasses have the same amount of moisture as they would in late August. That's usually the time when the plants lose their moisture to prepare for the winter, said Kent Foster, supervisory forester for the Yampa District.

"Were still about three weeks ahead," he said.

Moisture patterns have been ahead of schedule ever since the summer's melt off came early.

Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Bob Struble is expecting to get called to several more fires before the rain comes, but he is feeling fortunate.

"We've got it easy compared to what's happening in Moffat County," he said.

At least 30 fires are burning in the neighboring county. Around 20 of the smaller fires remain unmanned.

"It's just that we have X amount of people and we have a lot of fires," said Diann Pipher, fire information officer at the Craig Interagency Dispatch.

Around 280 firefighters, supported by another 130 people, are at the blazes. Fire crews have flown in from Tennessee, Oregon, North Carolina, New Mexico and six other states to help out.

To reach Doug Crowl call 871-4206 or e-mail dcrowl@amigo.net

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