Breckenridge Peak 2 Fire scorches 80 acres, forcing evacuation

Jack Queen

A wildfire erupted in the Gold Hill Trail area near Breckenridge early Wednesday afternoon and quickly roared up the side of Peak 2, at its height spewing 125-foot flames into the air and prompting the evacuation of more than 400 homes in the Peak 7 area.

The intensity of the roughly 80-acre fire — whipped up by northerly winds and fueled by low humidity and heavy beetle-kill — startled officials, reflecting the intense fire danger posed by scorching temperatures across the state.

The Gutzler Fire, burning near Kremmling, grew from 300 acres to 850 on Wednesday while the Peak 2 blaze was quickly becoming the latest of at least seven active wildfires in the state.

“I was surprised with how quickly it spread,” said Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District chief Jim Keating. “But it was that prime time of day when the humidity was very low and the winds were strong.”

A crew of eight smokejumpers from the U.S. Forest Service parachuted in at around noon, joining local crews that hiked in. At that point, the fire was estimated at only 50-by-50 square feet.

At around 2 p.m., however, the fire made a sudden and spectacular run as winds pushed it up the side of Peak 2, spawning huge flames and sending an enormous cloud of thick, black smoke towering into the air.

By 3 p.m., officials ordered the evacuation of Peak 7, and the entire town of Breckenridge was later placed on a pre-evacuation notice set to continue through Thursday.

“We were down in Breckenridge and we looked outside, and people were all staring into the sky and you could see smoke just billowing up,” said Nebraska resident Sheila Calhorn, who had to evacuate a rental home she was staying in with her family.

“This was supposed to be a stress-relieving vacation,” she quipped.

Around 50 people showed up to an evacuation center at Summit Middle School, although none took up the offer to stay the night there, Undersheriff Joel Cochrane said.

Joe Ratliff, an electrician who lives in Peak 7 with his wife and two kids, said he first saw the smoke on his way home for lunch.

“I felt it coming,” he said of the evacuation. “We could kind of see the smoke but couldn’t see how far away it was, but I figured we should start getting a bag packed.”

Throughout the afternoon, two air tankers repeatedly sprayed flame-retardant chemicals on the blaze while a helicopter put in laps dumping buckets of water.

By mid-afternoon, however, a lucky change in wind direction pushed the fire back on itself, stopping its rapid climb and heading off any further spread — at least for the day.

“We would like to take credit for that but we’ve got to give credit to the wind,” Keating said. “It pushed the fire back into a burned area and slowed it down.”

The shift was nearly as dramatic as the initial flare-up itself, as the flames vanished except in some isolated pockets on the fire’s northern end. Luckily, it didn’t make a run in the opposite direction toward Frisco.

The smoke thinned as the afternoon cooled, and by evening a sense of guarded calm settled in at the fire command post in the Silver Shekel neighborhood. The fire, though still smoldering, had laid down for the night

On Thursday, however, it could return with a vengeance, depending largely on the vagaries of the wind. Fire officials declined to speculate on what the next could hold, although they said the forecast called for more of the same: hot and dry.

A hand crew was en route from Utah, and another might come as well. Keating said to expect an escalation of the air attack tomorrow, with at least two more air tankers and several more helicopters entering the fray.

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