Silver Creek Fire holds steady at 2,000 acres; firefighters working to prevent further spread | SteamboatToday.com

Silver Creek Fire holds steady at 2,000 acres; firefighters working to prevent further spread

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Silver Creek Fire in Routt and Arapahoe national forests has reached about 2,061 acres. Two segments of fire line on the northern perimeter of the fire are contained, putting total containment at 5 percent.

The fire has held at this acreage since Saturday, after more than doubling in size July 31 and nearly doubling in size again Aug. 2. The fire ignited July 19, likely due to a lightning strike.

The fire has closed a swath of Routt National Forest and the bordering Arapahoe National Forest.

Flavio Gallegos, an incident commander trainee on the fire, said that actions taken to suppress the fire have lowered the chance that the fire will grow.

A helicopter takes off from the Silver Creek Fire.

"The potential is a lot smaller than it was last week, but there's always potential," he said.

Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area and Red Dirt Reservoir are closed to the public. Trails in the wilderness area are closed. The Muddy Creek trailhead on Rabbit Ears Pass is also closed, as the area is serving as the headquarters for incident command.

U.S. Forest Service Road 100, known as Buffalo Park Road is closed from the boundary of the National Forest to U.S. Highway 40. Forest Service Road 250 is closed at its junction with Forest Service Road 243, and Forest Service Road 312 is also closed.

For several reasons, firefighters have focused much of their work to suppress the fire on its eastern edge.

The closest structures of concern are at the Latigo Ranch, about 4 miles from the fire's southeastern edge. The unincorporated community of Old Park is about 6 miles from the fire.

Authorities have not issued any pre-evacuation or evacuation orders, said Jackie Parks, an information officer on the fire. Firefighters are collaborating with Grand County officials to make plans should evacuations become necessary.

The western edge of the fire is burning in rugged country near Gore Mountain in the Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area. The remote terrain and the abundance of beetle-killed lodgepole pine in this area make it unsafe for crews to fight the fire directly on its western edge.

"That area, the Gore Mountain area, is very steep. There's a lot of dead lodgepole (pine) in there, and it's very dangerous for anyone to go in," said Basia Trout, Yampa District Ranger for Routt National Forest. "We didn't go in personally. We flew it to gauge where exactly (the fire) was — if it was on wilderness or if it was on (Forest Service)."

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The fact that it's a wilderness area also makes firefighting more complicated. For example, crews must obtain permits to use chainsaws and other mechanical equipment in the wilderness area, though Kevin Thompson, Routt National Forest's fire management officer, said those permits were quickly issued.

Right now, the fire is burning in national forests, and the Forest Service hopes to prevent the fire from spreading to neighboring Bureau of Land Management and state-owned land to the east and private land to the southeast.

The blaze is what firefighters call a "dirty burn." The fire burned patches of the forest, partially burning some parts and skipping some patches of trees altogether. The area of the fire is a mosaic of blackened trees and green or partially charred lodgepole pines.

"They have a combination," Parks said. "Not everything has been burnt, and this is not unusual."

About 160 firefighters are working the wildfire. Firefighters have cut miles of fire line, which are areas where vegetation is removed to create a space where there is no fuel for the fire to burn. Hotshot crews cut some lines by hand, while heavy equipment was used to fell trees to create fire lines in other areas.

In addition to fire lines, crews are using water to extinguish the fire. Firefighters use hoses connected to water tankers to extinguish hot spots where there are small flames. Three helicopters, the largest of which carried 375 gallons of water Wednesday afternoon, drop sprays of reservoir water onto larger flames.

A person stands lookout on a nearby peak to give crews on the ground a better idea of what is happening.

"They can check out the fire behavior, what the smoke is doing," said Rodney Skalasky, a division operations chief on the fire. "If there's any aircraft in the area they can see those things. They can see the weather. If there's a storm system coming, they can warn everybody on the ground."

Skalsky got into wildland firefighting because of the industry's cross section with natural resource management, but he stayed in it to make a difference.

"It feels good, and you can make a difference," Skalsky said. He's certainly proud to work to save homes and private property, but he's also proud to make a difference in the health of the forest. The area of the Silver Creek Fire is full of lodgepole pines, which need fire to reproduce — their pinecones are sealed by a layer of resin. The cone only opens and releases seeds when extremely high temperatures melt off this resin.

Crews on the fire have come from across the U.S., leaving their homes for weeks and sometimes months at a time to fight fires wherever they are most needed.

Gallegos said the fire crew becomes his family in the summer.

"We celebrate birthdays, new babies and all kinds of stuff," he said. "In fact, we have a birthday today."

That firefighter didn’t get to blow out any birthday candles Wednesday evening — even fire crews must observe Stage 1 fire restrictions in the National Forests — but there are plenty of flames to be extinguished.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@steamboattoday.com or follow her on Twitter, @elHasenbeck.