Fueled by dead timber, high winds and low humidity, a lightning-sparked wildfire burning in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area has forced the closure of about 38,400 acres of public land, U.S. Forest Service officials said Tuesday.
The Wolverine Fire was 5 acres when it was detected Monday, but the blaze was expected to grow to several hundred acres by Tuesday night. The conditions are right for the fire to continue to grow, Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Ritschard said.
The fire is burning about 10 miles east of Clark, which is about 15 miles north of Steamboat Springs. By Tuesday afternoon, smoke was visible in Routt and Jackson counties, including in Steamboat Springs, Walden and Laramie, Wyo.
The fire is east of the south fork of the Elk River and northwest of Wolverine Basin. It is burning in steep and rugged terrain dominated by spruce and fir stands, about 40 percent of which has been killed by beetle infestations.
The fire is between the areas burned during the Burn Ridge and Hinman fires of 2002.
The blaze is being allowed to burn within predetermined boundaries to benefit natural resources, said Kim Vogel, a district ranger for Routt National Forest. Fires rejuvenate older forests by clearing out old, dead and downed material and allowing new vegetation to grow.
Natural boundaries are ex--pected to contain the fire. It's possible the fire could cross the Continental Divide and burn an area of 10,000 to 15,000 acres, Vogel said.
The fire is being monitored by helicopter. No fire crews have been sent to the area.
The fire likely was sparked when heavy lightning hit the area at the end of last week, Vogel said. A tree hit by lightning can smolder for days before igniting surrounding trees and undergrowth.
The blaze isn't threatening any structures or roads, Ritschard said. However, trails near the fire have been closed to keep people -- including hunters -- out of harm's way.
"A fire can move pretty quickly in dead trees," Ritschard said. "We don't want to end up in an emergency situation where people are in the vicinity of a fast-moving fire."
In addition to numerous trail closures, Seedhouse Road is closed from the intersection of Forest Service Road 443 to its conclusion. All of Forest Service Road 443 is closed.
Forest Service officials and employees are attempting to contact people already in the area to ask them to leave, Ritschard said. Cars parked at trailheads within and near the closure area are alerting Forest Service officials to the general locations of hikers and hunters who might be in the area.
Vogel said a helicopter has been flying over the area to look for camps and people walking along trails. Hunters in the area have been identified, and other steps are being taken to move people from the fire, she said.
Vogel did not know how many people have been asked to leave the area, but she said about a dozen people were found along one trail.
The Forest Service's priority is to keep people safe, Vogel said. Her main concern is people who were dropped off to hike or camp in the area and who may not have been spotted by helicopter. People in the backcountry should be aware of their surroundings and leave an area if they smell smoke or see a fire nearby, she said.
"In any direction, (the fire) is not going to find anything to hurt and ... if we keep people out of the way, we should be good in the end," Vogel said.