Mad Creek fire still burning

Official strategy is to 'sit back, watch and monitor'

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— The Mad Creek fire is no longer actively burning, but spots remain hot and crews are still working to finish hand-dug fire lines as forest officials take a wait-and-see attitude toward control of the blaze.

The downed trees from the Routt Divide Blowdown are the primary fuel for the fire.

Though wet conditions may slow the flames, the dry, dead timber retains so much heat that it doesn't take much for embers to be stoked and flames to start flying again, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Punky Moore said.

The blowdown, along with the rugged terrain of the area, makes it impossible for crews to go in and put out the fire completely. Therefore, elite firefighting Hot Shot crews are finishing the line around a perimeter of the fire, which could allow for 3,000 acres to be burned.

"Once it's contained, it will be monitored," Moore said. "It will take a major weather event before it is completely out."

The fire is about 11 miles north of Steamboat Spring in the Zirkel Wilderness. It is 85 percent contained, has 79 workers on it and has burned 1,300 acres.

Hahns Peak/Bears Ears District Ranger Kim Vogel said the primary objective in the fire is firefighter and public safety.

Waging an intensive firefighting effort to put out the fire could put firefighters at a significant risk.

"Our strategy is to sit back, watch and monitor," Vogel said.

The fire moves from blowdown patch to blowdown patch and has not significantly wandered into green, standing trees.

At each new patch the fire begins to consume, Vogel and fire officials consider doing a controlled back burn to reduce fuels in the area to ensure flames don't get too out of control.

"It's really an aerial suppression show," she said.

Though it may be advantageous to just let the dead wood burn, which probably will have to burn sooner or later and could be healthy for the forest, Vogel said the Forest Service cannot take an action to just let the fire burn because of administration limitations.

The Hahns Peak/Bears Ears District of the Routt National Forest does not have a fire plan that would legally allow Vogel to make a decision to let the fire burn.

Instead, the forest plan directs her to try to suppress it.

However, because the fire is not threatening public land or a valuable area in the forest and is in a hard-to-treat area, the suppression effort is similar to a process of allowing the fire to burn for a resource purpose.

If it moves out of the wilderness area, the suppression effort could be stepped up, Vogel said.

Crews initially responded to the Mad Creek fire July 9, when flames sparked from a lightning strike were spotted.

It burned about 100 acres in a blowdown area near Swamp Park in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. The blowdown was caused by a windstorm in 1997 that blew down thousands of acres of trees in a 30-by-five-mile area. The fire was contained a few days later.

However, an undetected hot spot from the blaze remained, which flared up July 24 and crossed containment lines.

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