Steamboat Springs Alert members of the public helped firefighters respond quickly to a trio of small forest fires in North Routt County late last week. The fires were surrounded and extinguished before they could grow to more than an acre in size.
"We were on them pretty quickly," said Mark Cahur of the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest. "In previous summers, I don't think people would have even noticed these fires. This year, public awareness has been raised and they're starting to notice them. That's helping us out big time."
Cahur is a fuels specialist with the National Forest Service. He also leads the "Steamboat Initial Attack Squad," a five-member group that makes the initial evaluation of forest fires and begins the suppression effort.
In addition to fighting three small, lightning-caused fires over the weekend, fire crews had to return to the scene of the Green Creek fire south of Steamboat to suppress some small flare-ups.
A nearby resident alerted fire crews to the Willow Creek fire on the morning of Aug. 8. The blaze was close to the forest boundary with private land inside the triangle, formed by the intersection of County Road 129 and Seedhouse Road, Cahur said.
Then about noon on Saturday, a Forest Service employee spotted a small blaze on Lester Mountain. The peak is southwest of Pearl Lake. Smoke from the fire was visible from Country Road 129 at the bridge over Willow Creek, between Glen Eden and Hahn's Peak Village.
Cahur called in a helicopter both to ferry his team to the top of the mountain, and to put water on the fire.
The third blaze, the A.J. fire, was spotted in Big Red Park, north of Hahn's Peak, by a resident riding an ATV or dirt bike, Cahur said.
At all three fires his team was able to cut a line around the flames and contain them.
Some mop-up work was continuing on the A.J. fire Monday.
All three fires were holdovers from lightning strikes earlier in the week, according to Forest Service officials.
A crew of 10 firefighters and a helicopter were also mopping up spot fires on the east side of the Green Creek fire, which burned 2,500 acres in the Sarvis Creek Wilderness in late July.
"Green Creek has been in monitor status for a couple of weeks," said Kent Foster, fire management officer for the Routt National Forest. "We were always ready to put people and equipment back on it when necessary."
Foster and Cahur agreed that the extended period of rain during the first week in August did little to permanently relieve fire danger locally.
"The rain caused some slow-down in fire activity, but it didn't affect the long-term situation it's getting hot, dry and windy again, and the fire danger is very high," Foster said.
Cahur said the damp conditions underfoot on some forest trails could be misleading.
"The larger fuels (mature trees) don't respond to the rain," Cahur said. "The fine fuels do respond. They absorb the rain quickly, but they lose it just as quickly."
Cahur said it will take a very snowy winter and a couple of wet summers to restore fuel moisture in the forest.
The open fire ban remains in place in Northwest Colorado. However, Foster said the Forest Service has begun discussing with other agencies locally what level of fire restrictions should be in effect through the balance of the summer and fall months. There is the possibility of reduced restrictions if conditions allow.