Plan of action to be defined today

Firefighters continue work on Mad Creek blaze

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— Dry conditions, downed trees and wind stoked up the Mad Creek Fire this week, causing smoke to trickle into the air north of Steamboat Springs and fire officials to re-examine containing the blaze.

Officials identified the fire flaring up on Tuesday burning one acre in the blowdown. By Wednesday afternoon, approximately 70 acres were scorched about six miles from the Steamboat Springs Airport, said Mike Rieser, fire management officer for the Craig-Routt Fire Management Unit.

The Mad Creek Fire originally sparked up from a lightning strike on July 9, in a blowdown area near Swamp Park in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. U.S. Forest Service officials hoped rocky ridges and green fields would prove to be natural fire barriers, and then started a controlled burn to the east of the fire to reduce fuels. Rains cooled things off a couple days later but it also prevented the controlled burn from consuming all the fuels, Rieser said.

"The rains actually came a little too early," he said.

Plus, Rieser said, the precipitation wasn't strong enough to penetrate the thick layer of dead and downed timber in the blowdown, which was caused by a wind storm in 1997 that blew down thousands of acres of trees.

Fire officials examined the area after the rains and didn't find any hot spots. But rugged terrain prevented them from finding a small plume that probably was just barely maintaining combustion. Dry conditions and a little wind stoked that hot spot, causing the fire, Rieser said.

"Holdovers," which Rieser called the phenomenon, are common. "Some can hold over for a whole winter," he said.

Hahn's Peak/Bears Ears District Ranger Kim Vogel flew over the fire on Wednesday morning. She said flames moved outside the controlled area of the original fire and moved into green timber.

To the southeast of the original fire, the blaze is consuming a large portion of blowdown.

"That's where most of the smoke is coming from," she said.

One Hot Shots crew was fighting the fire Wednesday and two more of the elite wildfire-fighting crews, which average about 20 people, are on the fire today, Vogel said.

By this morning Vogel and the firefighters will have a definite plan to deal with the fire. They will either identify natural barriers and set controlled burns or take more aggressive actions, such as building fire lines, Vogel said.

"We don't want any lasting scars from fire suppression," she said. However, Vogel added that conditions in the area could encourage the fire to keep burning and grow more out of control.

"The other thing is that firefighter safety is our highest priority," Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said.

The dry, downed timber makes for dangerous condition for firefighters.

"There is no way firefighters would escape quickly in there," Rieser said.

A firefighter reportedly sprained his knee Wednesday morning while fighting the blaze.

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