Update: Moffat County wildfire 5,200 acres and growing, U.S. 40 remains closed | SteamboatToday.com

Update: Moffat County wildfire 5,200 acres and growing, U.S. 40 remains closed

Lauren Blair/Craig Daily Press

Update 9:15 a.m. The Winter Valley Fire burning near Elk Springs in western Moffat County reached Cross Mountain overnight, charring more than 5,200 acres as of about 11 p.m. Thursday.

No structural damage was reported as of that same time, however about six or seven gas wells were caught in the path of the flames, said Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Courtney Whiteman.

One Deerlodge Park native suddenly found his home in the middle of the fire's course as high winds blew the flames northeastward and he was forced to evacuate. From the safety of his cousin's house across the Yampa River, Larry Hoover and family members spent a restless night watching the fire close in around three sides of his home.

"We watched all last night," Hoover said Friday morning. "From our viewpoint down there, it was at least a three-mile swath across and nothing but flames."

Hoover said he saw as many as four planes dropping rounds of fire retardant around and on his house as well as firefighters stationed at his residence to protect it.

"My prayers were answered," Hoover said, after waking up to find his house still standing. "They did a good job on it and really protected me and I owe them a lot of gratitude."

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Hoover noted that the winds continued to whip through the night but had died down this morning. Power was cut to residences in the area last night and it's unknown when it will be restored.

Around 150 personnel were expected to deploy to the fire Friday and two hotshot crews had been ordered to help battle the fast-moving flames, Whiteman said.

Thursday: As of 6:20 p.m. Thursday, a wildfire that was first reported around noon south of Elk Springs in western Moffat County had ripped through more 3,500 acres of grass and sagebrush, threatening residences in Deerlodge Park and surrounding areas.

U.S. Highway 40 remained closed Thursday evening as the blaze, dubbed the Winter Valley Fire, blew across the highway toward the northeast, threatening to reach Colorado Highway 318.

Residents, hunters and campers in the Deerlodge area were evacuated by late afternoon. A total of 25 to 30 residences were threatened by the fire as it whipped through the valley in which the Yampa River meets the Little Snake River, according to Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Courtney Whiteman.

Oil and gas structures, a communications tower and a Federal Aviation Administration tower were also threatened, with the potential for power outages if firefighters are forced to cut power lines, Whiteman said.

“It’s growing due to high winds, and it has crossed U.S. Highway 40,” said Moffat County Undersheriff Charlene Abdella. “There are mandatory evacuations in the area.”

The blaze broke out about noon a mile and half south of Elk Springs, Whiteman said, and grew rapidly due to wind gusts near 50 miles per hour.

A type 3 incident management team was called in to fight the blaze, and hotshot crews and large tankers were ordered in to battle the fast-moving flames. The fire was burning on BLM and private lands in greater sage grouse habitat, Whiteman said.

The fire closed U.S. Highway 40 in both directions shortly after 2 p.m. from Maybell to Elk Springs, according to Colorado State Patrol Captain Doug Conrad. Officials diverted traffic along Moffat County Road 57, or Price Creek Road, and Colo. Highway 64 near Dinosaur and Blue Mountain. Heavy smoke caused low visibility on the highway.

After being initially reported at about 10 to 15 acres about noon Thursday, the fire doubled in size within about 20 minutes and grew exponentially throughout the afternoon.

The BLM was leading efforts to fight the fire, with support from Moffat County Sheriff’s Office, State Patrol, Colorado Department of Transportation and Moffat County Road & Bridge. At press time, it is not known when the highway would re-open.

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1795 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.

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