Routt County sees early start for wildfire season
March 27, 2012
Steamboat Springs — As the Lower North Fork Fire in Jefferson County prompts the evacuation of thousands of homes, local fire departments are seeing an early start to the wildfire season in Routt County.
Local firefighters say they are concerned about the early-season fires and the dry conditions that exist at lower elevations.
"If we don't get some rain or some green grass growing real quick, we'll be in trouble," Yampa Fire Protection District Chief Dan Allen said. "We'll be like the Front Range."
A wildfire thought to have started Monday by a downed power line in Phippsburg was fueled by strong winds and threatened three homes. Yampa district firefighters were called to the fire at about 3:45 p.m.
"Residents did a really good job of protecting their property," Capt. Ralph Bracegirdle said. "They were very lucky not to lose any of their houses."
The fire burned about two acres and started in dry grass before spreading into sagebrush and a pile of tires behind the town park between Third and Fourth streets.
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"It burned right up to the house but didn't really damage it," Bracegirdle said. "It turned the color of the siding, and that's about it."
Six volunteer firefighters with the Yampa district were at the fire for about three hours. The Oak Creek Fire Protection District assisted with an engine and three firefighters.
On Tuesday, Oak Creek and Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue firefighters were helping West Routt Fire Protection District firefighters with a controlled agricultural burn that got out of control along Routt County Road 55 in the far southwest part of the county.
Routt County Emergency Management Director Bob Struble wrote in an email Tuesday morning that firefighters responded to the Beaver Valley Ranch at about 10:30 a.m. Monday.
"The fire had spread into the oak brush on the west flank and into the cottonwood trees along the East Fork of Williams Creek along the east flank when we arrived," Struble wrote. "We were able to extinguish the west flank fairly quickly then the winds picked up. We spent the rest of the day in the Cottonwoods working on the north flank to protect structures. Fire behavior at times was extreme with cottonwoods torching."
Firefighters left the fire overnight and returned Tuesday morning to mop up.
West Routt Chief Bryan Rickman said that calmer winds helped firefighting efforts Tuesday and that firefighters were done mopping up the fire by about 4 p.m. He estimated 200 acres had burned at the ranch but said no property was damaged.
He said the fire was burning over snowdrifts in some places and igniting dry vegetation.
"I don't think people understand how dry it is right now," Rickman said. "Those south-facing slopes are bone dry. They're the way you would expect to see them in August."
Rickman said there was a red flag warning in effect when the Beaver Valley Ranch controlled burn was conducted, and he urged people to call Routt County Communications when they plan to conduct a controlled agricultural burn.
"Unless the public calls and says they're going to burn, they don't know there is a red flag (warning) in effect," Rickman said.
Local firefighters in the past two weeks have responded to at least two other controlled agriculture burns that became wildfires.
U.S. Highway 40 was shut down for about 30 minutes March 15 just west of Hayden because of smoke from what started as a controlled burn. West Routt firefighter Dal Leck said the fire moved quickly through the dry grass on top of the frozen ground. About 10 acres were burned.
Dry conditions and wind also contributed to a controlled burn Friday that spread into nearby haystacks along C.R. 44. The fire in the haystacks reignited Monday during the strong sustained winds.
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com