A look inside the Ptarmigan Fire burn scar as crews continue to build containment

A firefighter uses a chain saw to cut through a tree inside the Ptarmigan Fire burn scar Monday, Oct. 4.
Sawyer D’Argonne/Summit Daily News

The massive aircraft presence circling above Silverthorne over the past week has largely dissipated. Evacuees have returned home, pre-evacuation notices have been lifted and the column of smoke billowing out of the White River National Forest is gone.

A little more than a week after the Ptarmigan Fire ignited, things have returned to normal for most residents in Summit County. But the work is far from complete.

Not far from where the Ptarmigan Trail meets the Angler Mountain Trail — a strenuous hike for firefighters in full protective gear hauling chain saws and axes — there are clear reminders of the wildfire that threatened hundreds of homes in the Hamilton Creek and Angler Mountain Ranch neighborhoods just days ago. The trees and ground inside the burn scar are black and scorched, any living aspens in the area are painted with a pinkish hue from nearby slurry drops, and there’s an unmistakable smell of smoke and burned wood that still lingers, like a day-old fire the morning after a camping trip.

Firefighters make their way to the Ptarmigan Fire burn area Monday, Oct. 4.
Sawyer D’Argonne/Summit Daily News

There are still more than 100 personnel assigned to the fire. Most are firefighters who make the daily hike to the fire line to continue building containment, and the work is vital. While aircraft dropping water and retardant over a fire is helpful in slowing its growth and creating safer conditions for those on the ground, it’s ultimately the firefighters who are responsible for making sure the fire is out.

“It’s really gratifying to me,” said Eli Mitchell, a firefighter with the Craig Hotshot crew, which is working to reinforce containment lines along the western side of the fire’s perimeter. “You see a bad section of line or a lot of beetle kill all over the place. It’s a lot of heavies (large logs and fuel sources) and a lot of work. But then you get to see your progress looking back, and it’s a good feeling.”

Upon arriving on the line, Mitchell said firefighters will spread out into a 10-foot grid and search for hot spots in the area. After that, firefighters with chain saws, called sawyers, will move down the line cutting through dead trees, logs or any fuels sources that have the potential to bridge the fire across the line. The material is then collected by swampers who toss it to the green side of the line away from the fire.

A firefighter uses a chain saw to cut through a tree inside the Ptarmigan Fire burn scar Monday, Oct. 4.
Sawyer D’Argonne/Summit Daily News

How fast firefighters are able to make their way down the line relies heavily on the terrain and fuel types, Mitchell said. On Monday, Oct. 4, he said it took his crew between two and three hours to clear a half-mile section of the line.

“The elevation sucks, but other than that, the terrain isn’t that bad,” Mitchell said. “When you get into an aspen grove, there’s not too much work, and you can speed through that. It’s really when you come into the beetle kill areas where it’s a little jackstrawed that will slow down production.”

Mitchell said wildland firefighters use a measuring unit called a “chain,” which is about 66 feet. Depending on fire conditions, he noted that they’ll start off doing a line a quarter-chain long. And once they’re done, they’ll go back and double, triple or quadruple it when necessary.

The goal, as always, is to stop the fire from growing, and firefighters have been successful. The fire remains at 86 acres and containment has increased to about 65%, according to the most recent update Tuesday, Oct. 5.

“This fire has a couple objectives driven into it,” said Patrick Kieran, fire prevention and mitigation specialist with the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit. “One of the primary ones is to suppress this fire and to keep it in the current footprint that it’s been at today and for the last couple days. So we’re doing that utilizing hand crews to spread out on this fire, mopping up hot spots, and making sure that this fire stays at the current 86 acres and doesn’t grow at all for the remainder of the management team’s duration here.”

Kieran said that process comes in stages. Firefighters will initially work toward containment, which is essentially a term that officials use to define the percentage of fire line that they’re confident won’t be breached. Once firefighters have reached a high enough percentage of containment, the fire will be considered controlled. Then, they’ll work to put it out entirely.

Firefighters clear heavy fuels from within the Ptarmigan Fire containment lines Monday, Oct. 4.
Sawyer D’Argonne/Summit Daily News

“To call a fire out, that means that there’s been no physical smoke seen in stump holes, logs or elsewhere for multiple days, up to even two weeks,” Kieran said.

The work isn’t easy. Some firefighters leave their homes and families for weeks at a time during the ever-growing wildfire season, traveling all over the country to assist local jurisdictions. One such responder to the Ptarmigan Fire was faced with a personal tragedy while helping with the blaze.

Nevada-based firefighter Mason Dixon’s home burned down earlier this week while he was in Summit County. Four family dogs were killed in the fire, and Dixon lost all of his personal belongings. Summit Fire & EMS spokesperson Steve Lipsher said officials sent Dixon on a plane back to Nevada on Tuesday morning. Lipsher said many community members have already reached out to help.

“The outpouring of support from this community and parts beyond has been heartwarming,” Lipsher said.

A GoFundMe page established by a fellow firefighter Monday has already raised more than $28,000 from people who hope to pay Dixon back for his and his colleagues’ work.

Undoubtedly, that work is important.

“Aviation and aircraft itself do not put out fires,” Kieran said. “Retardant does just that: It helps to retard the fire and keep it in check, while it gives the firefighters time to get into that particular location to start to build that fire line. … It really is the firefighters, the men and women who dedicate six, eight, 10 months out of their whole summer, fall and winter fighting fires in Colorado and throughout the West.”

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