Area wildfires increase in size

Burn Ridge, Hinman fires grow to 17,486 acres

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— High winds and dry conditions increased the size of wildfires north of Steamboat in the Routt National Forest to what officials say are the worst conditions they have ever seen in the area.

Blazes in the three wilderness areas in Routt County all increased in size over the weekend.

North of Steamboat Springs the Hinman and Burn Ridge fires, which officials are now calling the Mount Zirkel Complex, has grown to 17,486 acres, doubling in size due to 50 mph winds on Friday and Saturday.

The Green Creek fire, in the northern portions of the Sarvis Creek Wilderness, grew to 800 acres.

The Big Fish fire, burning mostly in Rio Blanco County in the Flat Tops Wilderness, grew to 10,000 acres Saturday engulfing Trappers Lake Lodge and eight associated buildings.

Sixteen other structures at Trappers Lake and another permitted cabin were saved.

That fire is being handled by the White River National Forest District.

Fire officials for the Routt Forest are most concerned with the Mount Zirkel Complex, considered the most serious fire incident to ever hit the National Forest.

Of particular concern is the 8,260-acre Burn Ridge fire about 16 miles north of Steamboat.

It was first reported Aug. 12, as eight acres burning as a result of a lightning strike.

On Saturday, the blaze blew over the Continental Divide in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness and nearly out of the Routt National Forest onto private land, Routt and Medicine Bow Forest Supervisor Mary Peterson said.

Peterson has allowed the use of chainsaws, pumps, retardants and helicopters in the wilderness area to fight the blazes.

"They basically have all the tools they need to keep it from threatening private property," she said.

Ranching structures owned by Bob Swift near Delaney Butte Lakes are three miles away from the eastern front of the fire.

On Sunday, three engines and a helicopter were working that front to keep the blaze in the National Forest.

The Hinman fire grew to 9,236 acres and reportedly went into most of Diamond Park. It also started last month from a lightning strike.

The blaze is still deep in the National Forest, but its southern fronts are creeping south toward the Seedhouse ranger station and 30 residents living off Seedhouse Road.

"We think that maybe at one point the fires will burn together," Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said.

Because of that fact, containing the Hinman and Burn Ridge fires are one of the top priorities in the Rocky Mountains.

Officials believe there is a great potential for the blazes to considerably grow.

The fires are burning portions of trees blown over in a freak 1997 windstorm and also in standing dead spruce trees killed in a massive spruce beetles epidemic that is ongoing in the forest.

Andy Cadenhead, supervisory forester for the Forest Service, said several elements have come together to create such fire-prone conditions in North Routt County.

The summer's drought and the million downed trees from the 1997 Routt Divide Blowdown both play big roles.

But the thousands of standing dead spruce trees, still bearing needles, complicates the situation even more.

Trees are most flammable during the short time they hold their needles.

"Then you can get flames 100 feet above the trees," Cadenhead said.

That causes burning embers to fly more than a mile away, allowing the fire to spread.

Depending on the area, 30 to 80 percent of the standing green trees in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness are dead from beetle kill. Coupling that with low moisture and the blowdown patches makes for a unique situation one that isn't safe for firefighters.

"Truthfully, there is no way that we would put firefighters in the heavy blowdown or the heavy standing (dead) trees," Peterson said.

The fuels are too thick and the danger is too high, she said.

"There is nothing we can do (safely) to stop that fire in the blowdown and beetle kill," Peterson said.

She explained the firefighting strategy is to reach confinement of the blaze.

Since fire is a natural part of the environment, firefighters will let what's burning continue to burn and try to keep fire fronts from spreading to private land.

But even that proved difficult over the weekend.

Six helicopters on three fixed-wing aircrafts are working the fire, along with hand crews totaling 103 firefighters.

The high winds, however, halted some of those efforts.

"The wind right now has just been kicking us," pilot Jim Lawson said.

All aircraft was grounded twice over the weekend because of winds.

Winds also blew the Green Creek fire east out of Sarvis Creek Wilderness.

However, it moved into an old timber sale area where younger green trees are growing.

That area is less flammable halted the fire's easterly movement.

Four engines and four air tankers were working that fire.

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