Big Fish fire threatens properties

1,800-acre blaze forces evacuations in South Routt


— By Friday afternoon, Jayne Colley could see the flames all around her.

Colley's husband manages the Rio Blanco Ranch, one of several properties threatened by the Big Fish fire in the Flat Tops Wilderness area.

The 1,800-acre blaze sits about an eighth of a mile from the ranch and forced the evacuation of guests at the ranch, Trappers Lake Lodge and Trappers Lake and Himes Peak campgrounds.

The Colleys stayed behind with 17 crew members to assist about 50 firefighters camped out on the property.

"We are doing what we can to help them," she said.

The fire, about 34 miles southwest of Steamboat Springs, began July 18 but idled around 50 acres for a few weeks until it took off Wednesday.

Forest Service officials have not suppressed the fire because it is burning in wilderness area.

A fire management unit team decided earlier suppression would begin immediately should the fire move beyond predetermined boundaries and threaten structures that border the wilderness area, such as the ranch, lodge and campgrounds.

Plans are in place to begin suppression efforts if and when the fire reaches certain trigger points, fire information officer Cal Wettstein said.

"This was expected," he said of the fire moving in the direction of Trappers Lake. "But it's moving a little faster than we anticipated."

Trappers Lake Lodge was entirely evacuated Thursday afternoon, Wettstein said.

Colley knows she and her co-workers might have to leave the ranch today if the fire gets too close. Belongings have been packed.

"It does look like it's quite possible," she said.

The hot shot crews camped out at the Rio Blanco Ranch have cut down brush and trees in anticipation of the fire reaching buildings on the property.

Forest Service officials advised the public to expect heavy smoke in the area because of dense forest in the path of the fire.

Also, a wildfire burning 16 miles north of Steamboat Springs in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness grew to more than 2,000 acres Friday.

A fire use management team was expected to arrive Friday evening to assist local fire managers in suppressing the Burn Ridge fire.

The fire is burning mostly in wilderness area, but confinement efforts are under way because the fire could potentially move to the northeast away from the wilderness.

Homes would be threatened if the fire headed that way.

The Forest Service doesn't want to put any property at risk, said Diann Pipher, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

Two 20-person crews and dozers are working on extending containment lines to keep the fire within the Mount Zirkel Wilderness area.

Helicopters continued to drop water on the fire. Retardant will not be used to contain the blaze because it lies within a wilderness area.

Fire officials are taking a "light on the land" approach to suppressing the fire. No motorized vehicles are allowed in the wilderness, so fire crews are using only hand tools to contain the fire.

Firefighters have been unable to get to the fire because the blaze is burning through patches of blowdown.

Rows of toppled trees and standing trees killed in a spruce bark beetle epidemic create dangerous conditions for firefighters.

Winds up to 30 mph Friday further hindered containment efforts.

Strong gusts can send fire dangerously ripping through dead and dry timber, Pipher said.

"For the next few days, there will be quite a bit of smoke," she said.

But Forest Service officials have no intention of letting the fire spread, Pipher said.

"Suppression is key," she said.

The public can learn more about the Burn Ridge fire from 6 to 8 p.m. today at the Forest Service office in Steamboat Springs.

Fire managers will be on hand to narrate a video about the fire and answer questions.


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