Dispatchers inundated during smoke scare
September 7, 2016
Steamboat Springs — The smell and sight of smoke in the Yampa Valley on Tuesday afternoon caused some residents to panic.
Routt County Communications supervisor Tammy Shupp said they were fielding non-stop calls from concerned residents between 2 and 7 p.m..
"We would hang up from one and go to another," Shupp said.
The smoke from the Lost Solar Fire that blew up Tuesday first became visible in South Routt County. Satellite imagery showed it was headed directly toward Oak Creek.
"I got tons of calls," Oak Creek Fire Protection District Chief Chuck Wisecup said. "Within one hour, it had Oak Creek socked in, and it went down valley.”
Wisecup said he considered asking for an emergency notification to be sent out via Routt County's CodeRed system, but Wisecup said he was too busy answering the phone. He then had to go check on the Silver Creek fire burning southeast of Stagecoach because he had been told that it had flared up.
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Wisecup said about 20 people stopped by the Stagecoach Fire Station to ask about the smoke.
"Most of them thought Silver Creek blew up or we had another fire," Wisecup said.
One resident told Wisecup the smoke was so thick it felt like she was standing around a campfire.
There was some initial confusion because sudden, widespread buildups of smoke are uncommon in Routt County.
"That, yesterday — it was weird," Wisecup said.
Originally, Wisecup thought the smoke was coming from a prescribed burn because he was alerted about an upcoming burn last week.
Routt County Emergency Management Director Bob Struble spotted the smoke Tuesday afternoon while driving back from Wyoming.
"Once I got to where I could see it, I knew it wasn't a controlled burn," Struble said.
Some residents called Routt County Communications concerned the smoke was coming from a fire on Dunckley Pass.
It wasn't until dispatchers called Craig Interagency Dispatch that they learned the smoke was coming from the Lost Solar Fire in the Blanco Ranger District in a remote area of the Flat Tops Wilderness about 25 miles east of Meeker.
Shupp said Routt County Communications relayed the information to the local fire departments, which then distributed the information via social media.
"Even with the info out on social media, it was very busy in here," Shupp said.
Fire officials estimate the Lost Solar Fire burned 1,000 acres Tuesday.
Chris Cuoco, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's office in Grand Junction, said the fire was fueled by strong wind gusts exceeding 30 miles per hour.
"When the winds pick up, it is going to get active at times," Cuoco said.
The wind was strong enough that the smoke column did not rise and instead blew the smoke to the northeast.
Cuoco said most of Routt County should be clear of smoke for the rest of the week. The winds are expected to be calmer and keep the smoke to the south.