The Saratoga Sun -

Fire has big weekend

Beaver Creek fire grows to over 50 square miles

 

Courtesy US Forest Service

A graph released by the Forest Service Aug. 1 warns that stagnant conditions could lead to increased smokiness in coming days. Smoke and haze have permeated the Valley in recent weeks and on Tuesday were visible as far away as Fort Collins. Smoke levels have increased in tandem with the amount of burned and burning acreage, and tends to increase during the evenings hours when the temperature drops and smoke begins to settle. This explains why early morning haze is often so pronounced, and can lead to hazardous conditions for nighttime driving. This particulate matter can pose health risks to vulnerable populations.

Sunday afternoon, members of the Type III Incident Management Team fighting the Beaver Creek Fire 24 miles north of Walden, Colo. safely negotiated treacherous meteorological conditions that rapidly expanded the footprint of the blaze. As of Tuesday, the fire had burned 34,020 acres (roughly 53 square miles), and its management is being transferred from the Type III Incident Management Team lead by John Warder to a National Incident Management Organization Team (NIMO Team) headed by Mike Quesinberry.

Forest Service Public Information Officer Neal Kephart said the leadership transition has been in the works for some time. "This fire is expected to last a while into the fall," Kephart said. Several officials have said they believe only winter snow will bring a definitive end to the burning, and with the long time frame, Kephart said "(The) NIMO Team is intended to bring long-term stabilization over the long haul."

Change and turnover are the norm on a wildfire management team, where shifting conditions dictate rapid fluctuations in demands for personnel and equipment. Kephart said the length of a typical tour for a firefighter is 14 days on duty before a rest, and "there's been a lot of them that have extended." Kephart said the team started out consisting largely of local responders, and has drawn firefighters from farther and farther afield as the fire grew.

According to Forest Service Information Specialist Aaron Voos, fire containment efforts for the Beaver Creek Blaze had cost about $15 million as of July 31. These costs were split between Colorado, Wyoming, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management,with Wyoming picking up around $25,000 of the total, though the numbers fluctuate daily, Voos said.

Since the blaze started June 19, the number of firefighters working to contain the Beaver Creek fire has varied from the low 100s to 562 on June 30, as reported in Forest Service press releases. On Tuesday, there were 262 firefighters in four crews, two dozers, 24 engines and four helicopters working to fight the fire. Kephart said this number was expected to stay relatively constant over the next week, though conditions on the ground can necessitate unexpected deployments.

Such a rapid change happened Sunday, when, according to Kephart "(We) Thought it would be a slow burning day." Relatively good cloud cover, high humidity and the chance of precipitation lead the team to believe that suppression efforts would have a good chance of success. According to a press release, that changed as a thunderstorm moving into the area "collapsed sending out massive outflow winds. Wind gusts pushed the fire in all directions and firefighters faced extreme fire behavior on multiple fronts."

Wind was a big driver of fire growth over the weekend, with windspeeds up to 50 mph Saturday leading to "spotting" (embers igniting previously unburned areas) up to 3/4 of a mile from the fire perimeter. The fire grew about 1,000 acres in size on three consecutive days July 29 through August 1. Also, on August 1, the blaze crossed the state line into Wyoming again, igniting a 10-acre spot-fire in the Holroyd Park area near the Wills Reservoir in Colorado.

The large increases in the fire area has upped the number of infrared tracking flights the team has been flying, Kephart said. Kephart said these flights have taken place almost every other day as the fire grew in size and teams needed up-to-date mapping that can be hard to do from the ground. These flights, conducted overnight, use sophisticated thermal imaging equipment to penetrate the smoke and give firefighters an idea of how the fire has moved.

One encouraging sign is that overall fire containment, the percentage of the fire edge that the management team considers unlikely to expand, has gone up from 5 percent July 24 to 12 percent August 2. "A big goal is to keep the fire west of the Platte River," Kephart said. He noted that keeping the fire out of Parson's Draw in Colorado was likewise a priority.

As of Tuesday, the fire had burned 17 structures, Kephart said. Only one of these was considered to be a cabin or residence, while the other 16 were considered outbuildings, including several historic mining structures. Evacuation orders remain in place.

"We're getting into a time of year where resources are utilized over a large area," Kephar said of plans to combat the fire moving forward. With the hot, dry summer in full swing, wildfires have cropped up in several places across the state, and personnel and heavy equipment are in heavy demand in several areas simultaneously.

Structure protection is a priority, but not at the expense of firefighter safety, a theme that's been stressed by crew leaders from day one. Erratic fire behavior from the region's strong winds and dangerous environments filled with steep terrain and beetle-killed trees that are liable to fall make combating the Beaver Creek Fire a risky endeavor. Zero serious injuries thus far to the hundreds of firefighters assigned to the blaze speaks to the professionalism and strategic-thinking of all involved.

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