Fires rage north of Steamboat

Popular Slavonia Trailhead consumed as Mount Zirkel blazes top 30,000 acres

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A fast-moving wildfire on Monday consumed a trailhead that leads to some of the most popular hiking destinations in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness.

The Slavonia Trailhead which is at the end of Seedhouse Road and leads to Gilpin, Mica and Gold Creek lakes burned as the weeks-old Hinman fire pushed east.

The Hinman and Burn Ridge fires are burning close to each other in the wilderness area 25 miles north of Steamboat Springs. Smoke from the fires blanketed Steamboat on Monday.

Officials are concerned the fires, which have scorched 30,000 acres, will join. Already, they are being managed as a single fire referred to as the Mount Zirkel Complex.

"It's likely they could merge, given the weather and dry fuel," fire information officer Punky Moore said.

The Hinman fire runs parallel to the 11.9-mile Seedhouse Road. The Burn Ridge is two to three miles to the south burning parallel to the Hinman.

The Hinman fire crossed the road near the Seedhouse campground several times Sunday, and the Slavonia Trailhead was only the latest breach. Fresh burn marks along the road bear evidence of the fire's unforgiving advance.

Firefighters have already burned some of the brush along the northern edge of Seedhouse Road to eliminate fuel for the fire should it come down off the ridge.

If the fires have nothing to burn, they will not spread as quickly, division supervisor Jay Miller said.

Firefighters could do little to stop the fires' advance Monday. Major portions of both fires are burning in blowdown areas that are too risky for firefighters.

Miller and the Tatanka Hot Shots of South Dakota were stationed a mile or so from the Slavonia Trailhead Monday. There was nothing for the men to do but wait and observe the fire's eastward push.

"We're monitoring the fire," Miller said, as he looked east. "That's all we can do."

Dry and dead timber is in the fire's path. Some trees, although green and still standing, have died in the wake of a massive beetle epidemic.

Flames shot up the trunks of trees, creating a sound similar to a train moving through a tunnel. Widespread torching produced giant plumes of smoke that turned shades of purple, pink, yellow and gray.

Should the Hinman fire creep further south toward the edge of Seedhouse Road, Miller said, firefighters may create a six-mile burn line to stop its advance.

"We have to get ahead of it," he said.

The 20-man Tatanka Hot Shots are some of the firefighters moving out today. A Type I Incident Management Team is taking responsibility of the fire this morning.

The transition from a Type II to a Type I team is a result of the fire's growing complexity, Moore said. The blaze demands greater resources that Forest Service officials have determined cannot be met by a Type II team.

Almost 300 people have been assigned to the Mount Zirkel Complex. That figure includes nine 20-person crews who are being aided by bulldozers and helicopters.

Fire officials shut down air operations Monday because of wind and heavy smoke.

Although much of the fire is in wilderness area, firefighters have been allowed to use mechanized equipment such as chainsaws and water pumps to prevent the fire from threatening nearby private property.

"It just gives us more tools with which to address the fire," said Diann Pipher, public relations officer with the Forest Service.

Firefighters need all the help they can get.

The Burn Ridge and Hinman fires have demonstrated behavior unlike that of previous wildfires in Routt County, Moore said.

Low humidity and warm temperatures in the morning means the fire does not "lay down" in the evening.

"It has been more active later into the night," she said.

Such natural barriers as aspen stands and the rocky ridge above portions of Seedhouse Road have not delayed the fire's spread, she said, because the drought has made the entire area more prone to fire.

The fire has instead sent burning embers up to three fourths of a mile away, she said.

"That's how extreme these fires have been acting," she added.

Winds continued to push the fire eastward Monday, but fire officials are still concerned about the southern front of the complex, where 30 residents live along Seedhouse Road.

No structures, however, are directly threatened.

And the residents who live and work there aren't too worried, either.

Lindsey Grannis, general manager of Elk River Guest Ranch, has seen it all before.

The ranch lies along Seedhouse Road, which was closed in July when the Hinman first erupted.

But Grannis, along with others in the area, hopes would-be visitors aren't scared off by reports of fire in the area. Elk River Guest Ranch, as well as neighboring Vista Verde Ranch, are open for business.

The road closure last month hurt business, and Grannis said the ranch is determined to not let it happen again. Life goes on, she said, alluding to the fact that cabins remain occupied and trail rides continue to draw a crowd.

"Mother Nature it's going to happen," Grannis said. "Unfortunately, it's happened to us twice this summer."

Forest Service officials intend to manage the Mount Zirkel Complex while it burns in the wilderness.

Once it moves beyond wilderness boundaries, the blaze will be suppressed.

"It's full suppression out of the wilderness," Moore said.

The fire has steadily been moving east, and fire officials are not too concerned about it doing an about face and moving in a westerly direction.

The Hinman and Burn Ridge fires crossed the Continental Divide. The Hinman is within 9 miles of Big Creek Lakes in Jackson County. To the south of Steamboat Springs, the Green Creek fire grew 20 acres Monday in the Sarvis Creek Wilderness.

More accurate mapping of the blaze put its burn area at 4,400 acres. Additional resources are expected tomorrow for the fire, which is 45 percent contained on the west side of the original fire.

The Big Fish fire in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area which has destroyed Trappers Lake Lodge, seven cabins and a barn is up to 13,500 acres.

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