Evacuated Wildernest residents ‘absolutely shocked’ how fast Buffalo Mountain Fire near Silverthorne spread

At 10:40 a.m. Tuesday morning, Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons was telling county commissioners that wildfire conditions had hit a critical stage. He recommended the county enact fire restrictions to ban open fires and fireworks immediately to avoid an imminent catastrophe.

As FitzSimons was speaking, 9-1-1 calls started flooding in. A small plume of white, wispy smoke was seen coming off the east slope of Buffalo Mountain, within a few hundred yards of the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighborhoods near Silverthorne. The location of the fire happened to be in the exact location for a full-scale wildfire readiness exercise that was planned for later this month.

By noon, Buffalo Mountain looked like a volcano, as the fire exploded to 91 acres and forced the evacuation of 1,384 homes.

Silverthorne resident Jake Schulman said he was hiking Buffalo Mountain with his 11-year old cousin when he saw the fire in its infancy.

“I saw a little bit of fire, like a campsite with some white smoke coming out, but it looked out of place,” Schulman said. “I called my mom to see if a fire was reported, and she said there was and that we need to get off the mountain.”

Schulman and his cousin started heading down the mountain at around 10:30 for a trailhead near Wildernest, where their car was parked. When they got there at 11:40, the fire was already there to meet them.

“I was absolutely shocked by how fast it spread,” Schulman said. “By the time we got to the car, it had grown tremendously, and we could see the flames. There were big black rolling clouds coming off it and it had gotten to the edge of the forest, right next to the neighborhood.”

Schulman said that firefighters had already arrived and were gearing up in the parking lot.

“They were already there fighting it or getting geared up to attack it,” Schulman said. “They seemed calm, asked us if we were okay. They seemed to be trying to get the fire away from the neighborhood.”

At an afternoon press briefing, authorities reported that the fire had not yet burned any homes, and that fire mitigation efforts over the years had managed to keep the flames out of the neighborhoods, for now. All homes uphill from 20 Grand Road were ordered evacuated, while residents downhill are still under a pre-evacuation notice. Evacuees were shepherded to the Silverthorne Recreation Center, where they stayed until moved in the evening to an overnight shelter set up at Frisco Elementary School.

One of those evacuees, Wildernest resident Phillippa Greathouse, said that she wasn’t home when she heard about the fire.

“I was going down to Breckenridge when I got the alert about the fire on my phone,” Greathouse said. “And then I saw it, and all I could think of was Edgar.”

Edgar, a 5-year-old Schnauzer-Poodle mix, was still in her house. Greathouse said her neighbor managed to get Edgar and a few things out of their house. Safe and sound, Greathouse said they’re just waiting and hoping her home will still be standing when they get back.

“We were about to sell our Boulder home, and this was going to be our only home,” Greathouse said. “For some people it already is their home, and it’s all they have.”

Greathouse said that while she was concerned, she wasn’t despairing since she already had everything she needed. “We’ll make it, we got each other, we got Edgar,” she said.

The proximity of the fire to homes triggered a firefighting blitzkreig from local, state and federal responders. A half-dozen heavy air tankers and three helicopters have been deployed to provide air support for over a hundred firefighters and an array of heavy engines on the ground to knock down the fire before it gains any more strength.

Fire officials said that the neighborhoods were looking “pretty good” as fuel breaks have acted like a moat around the neighborhoods. The fuel breaks are part of a years-long fire mitigation effort by the U.S. Forest Service to create defensible space around homes and neighborhoods.

The Buffalo Mountain Fire is already larger than the last wildfire in Summit County, the Peak 2 fire near Breckenridge last summer. That fire saw a similarly explosive start and grew to 84 acres before firefighters managed to snuff it out. While Breckenridge was threatened, that fire did not come as close to homes as Tuesday’s.

Authorities have been warning the public about an explosive 2018 wildfire season for months, as a short, dry winter has turned forests all over the state into giant tinderboxes. Several fires were already raging in the state before Buffalo Mountain; the 416 fire near Durango has been burning for nearly two weeks and grown to over 23,000 acres with only 15 percent containment, while neighboring Eagle County is wrestling the Bocco fire which has grown to 415 acres and is 50 percent contained. The San Juan National Forest has been closed to visitors as southern Colorado deals with some of the driest, hottest conditions on record.

Despite the all-hands-on-deck response to the fire, county business went on as scheduled this afternoon. Summit’s three commissioners unanimously passed a resolution to enact Stage 1 fire restrictions, which ban open, uncontained fires outside of campgrounds and designated areas, as well as a ban on sale and use of fireworks, smoking outdoors in undeveloped areas and using outdoor equipment such as chainsaws.

At a community meeting on Tuesday, officials did not give a containment estimate for the fire, explaining the priority was to protect structures and lives. Once that’s done, details of the containment will be revealed, but officials warned it may take at least a few days to knock the fire out completely.

Gov. John Hickenlooper issued a statement Tuesday afternoon about the fires raging across Colorado, assuring residents the state is doing everything it can to keep them safe.

“Colorado has allocated more resources for fire fighting than any other state in the Rocky Mountain West,” Hickenlooper said. “We recognize the conditions are dry and hot. Public health and safety are the top priorities in fighting any fire. If you are in the fire zones, please follow safety procedures and directives. Our state agencies are here to support you. As we have proved time and time again, Coloradans are resilient.”

Eli Pace and Sawyer D’Argonne contributed reporting to this story.


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