Officials urge residents not to get complacent after success battling Ptarmigan Fire

The Ptarmigan Fire's burn scar is pictured Oct. 4.
Sawyer D’Argonne/Summit Daily News

Community members gathered at Silverthorne Town Hall on Thursday, Oct. 21, to take part in a community debriefing on the Ptarmigan Fire, in which fire managers provided insights into the initial attack on the blaze and how the firefighting effort would influence operations in the area moving forward.

The Ptarmigan Fire ignited at about 4:30 p.m. Sept. 27 on U.S. Forest Service land bordering the Ptarmigan Peak Wilderness Area to the northeast of Silverthorne. The wildfire quickly spurred the evacuation of hundreds of homes in the Hamilton Creek neighborhood, and more residents in the Angler Mountain Ranch neighborhood were displaced the following day. The blaze ultimately wouldn’t reach any homes, hindered by snow and rain, aircraft dropping water and retardant, and the work done by firefighters on the ground to build effective containment lines.

By Oct. 14, officials declared the 86-acre wildfire 100% contained. For area residents and the agencies that responded to the fire and assisted with evacuation efforts, what could have been a tragic and devastating incident instead became a story of success. But the message at Thursday’s meeting was clear: Success can easily lead to complacency.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to just speak candidly,” Summit Fire & EMS Chief Travis Davis said. “… I think the next time (we have a fire), if we have similar conditions — time of day, time of year, weather, topography, fuel, fuel package similarities, resource availability — it’s going to be pretty much the same. But that’s what concerns the hell out of me. We’ve had great success in this county in the last two, three significant fires we’ve had. Let’s not get complacent, and I think there’s a huge opportunity for that to happen. And that’s when we’re going to be in trouble.”

Davis said the initial call from dispatch came in like most do: light smoke, no flames. A battalion chief and crew were sent up to investigate and reported back no immediate risks in the area — at least, no flames bearing down on homes — which meant fire officials had an opportunity to take a more calculated approach, looking at fuel types, topography, weather and the other variables that could help to determine how the fire would behave. He said the decision was quickly made not to deploy firefighters into the area.

“We know better than that. We know exactly what would happen because that’s what they’re faced with right there,” Davis said, pointing to a picture of jackstrawed trees in a slideshow behind him. “And for folks that are going in on foot to suppress that or make an attempt to suppress that, it’s a losing battle for them. There’s no way that they can level that playing field until we get the resources on station that we need to put a box around it.”

The Ptarmigan Fire's burn scar is pictured Oct. 4.
Sawyer D’Argonne/Summit Daily News

Evacuations and communication

Evacuations came quickly. Officials said they don’t make evacuation decisions lightly, fearing that if they “cry wolf” community members won’t respond with urgency during a true emergency. But given the fire’s behavior and proximity to residential areas, officials decided it was necessary.

“Evacuations aren’t taken lightly, but we’ve also learned from watching not only our own fires — Buffalo, Peak 2, Straight Creek — but as well as what everyone sees nationally, especially out West, and we really didn’t want to hesitate on the evacuations,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “We thought we had this window where we could safely evacuate people in a calm manner, as opposed to, ‘You’ve got three minutes before your neighborhood catches on fire. Get your stuff, get in your car and go.'”

FitzSimons said all public safety officials in the county have evacuation map books, which break the area down into subdivisions and contain information on how many people are in certain neighborhoods, critical infrastructure in the area and how long an evacuation would take. Davis said evacuation decisions are loosely based on spread potential: time versus growth and growth versus time to evacuate.

Not everything went smoothly. Davis said there were some communication issues between the different responding agencies and efforts to push out information to the public in the first couple of hours. He attributed the problem to responders in different areas being so focused on their respective tasks that messaging would get confused.

“A lot of times when we’re in the heat of the battle, we don’t necessarily have the ability to step back … and hit the reset button and start again,” Davis said. “… The messages that we were hoping to get out, they weren’t going out the way we needed to go out. We realized it early on, and we acted quickly in such a way that we changed the tempo. Instead of letting this miscommunication continue and evolve, we got in front of it.”

Davis said the community meetings held at Silverthorne Town Hall during the fire helped to get everyone on the same page.

Engaging the blaze

Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi said air resources were called in quickly, but because of the distance they had to travel and the limited hours of daylight after ignition, an aggressive air attack didn’t start in earnest until the following day. He said federal ground resources were also limited, with some workers already off for the season and others battling fires across the West.

Firefighters scouted the area to look for safe places to engage the fire for the first couple of days, and once air resources had created a buffer, saw teams were able to move in to remove overhead hazards and firefighters could begin building containment. Bianchi said the vast majority of homes in Summit County are within the wildland-urban interface and, therefore, fire officials don’t typically have a lot of flexibility in letting fires burn for a resource benefit. While firefighters were building containment on the western edge of the fire to prevent it from moving into residential areas, Bianchi said officials were OK with letting it burn to the east, and it was quelled naturally by precipitation and the direction of the wind.

He noted that the fire ultimately would have an ecological benefit, helping to clean up the area and regenerate the forest.

“By springtime, you’ll be amazed by how much grass and green will be continuing to grow back up in that area,” Bianchi said. “We’ll continue to monitor, as well, and if we need to do any sort of restoration work, we’ll do that: anything from planting trees to rehabbing the fire lines and stabilizing the soils anyway we can with seeding. We’ll do that over the next year as we continue to monitor to ensure the area is growing back and growing back healthy.”

The community’s role

Officials thanked community members for their support during the fire, including nearby residents for responding responsibly to the evacuation orders and local ranchers who opened up their fields for helicopter landing locations.

They also pleaded with residents to understand that as the climate changes and wildfires across the West continue to grow and intensify, they need to be prepared for the worst, despite the results of recent fires locally.

“In 2002, the concept of megafire hadn’t really been talked about,” Davis said, referring back to the Hayman Fire, a 138,000-acre blaze that served as Colorado’s largest recorded wildfire until last year. “… A hot summer day 20 years ago (in Summit County) was about 70 degrees, it lasted for about two weeks, and you could count on the rain just about every day. What does it look like now? Northern California. And you think it’s going to get any better?

“I’m not up here to sensationalize or turn this into a fear-mongering session by any stretch of the imagination, folks. But let’s not get complacent because we’ve seen great success on a couple of these recent incidents that we’ve had. Times are changing.”

Bianchi said officials believe the Ptarmigan Fire was human caused, but the investigation into how it started is ongoing.

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