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Fire in summit county

Allen Best

SUMMIT COUNTY – During his years in Summit County, Barry Sheakley only recalls one forest fire ever covering as much as 10 acres. When a fire started, somebody almost always saw it immediately. Then, it was stomped out.

“You couldn’t light a cigarette without somebody calling it in as a fire,” he said, recalling his 1978-1992 stint with the Dillon Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. “When things got dry, half the phone calls would be about smoke. Usually they’d turn out to be from barbecue grills.”

But to a patient eye with a bit of training, the forests of Summit County tell of more eventful times. Fires have occurred, sometimes on a large scale, although with not the same frequency as in lower elevation forests of ponderosa pine, as characterized by the Hayman fire southwest of Denver or the Missionary Ridge fire near Durango. It’s different here.

During the past century, though, fires have been scarce. There are several reasons.

Since 1910, soon after the Forest Service was created, the agency’s mission has been to suppress all fires. Huge forest fires in the Northwest that left scores of people dead seared that mission deep into the agency’s consciousness. Not until 20 or so years ago was this all-exclusive mission questioned. Nearly 80 percent of Summit County is within National Forest.

Even with a shift in attitudes, fires may not always roar. Sheakley recalls letting one fire burn near Cataract Creek in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. The Forest Service by then had adopted a let-it-burn policy for some locations and circumstances. But the fire only sputtered, then went out.

Summit County has what some have called an “asbestos forest,” meaning it just doesn’t burn that easily. With its high elevation and location on the west side of the Continental Divide, Summit County tends toward wetness. Spruce-fir forests of the 10,000-foot elevations burn only every 250 to 400 years, by some estimates. When they do burn, they can be huge. But, with fire suppression of only a century, “they’re not far out of whack,” to use the words of one forester.

Lower-elevation forests of ponderosa pine, Gamble oak, and other more flammable materials are another matter. There, fire normally occurs every 15 to 40 years. With fires in those ecosystems suppressed for a century, a great deal of fuel has built up.

In addition, the miners and those who followed after 1860 scraped many hillsides of wood, leaving little fuel for ignition. John D. Farr, a longtime Summit County insurance man, volunteer firefighter, and amateur historian, says there were at least four big sawmills up the Swan River drainage, and at least two more were located in French Gulch. Miners had massive needs for lumber for props inside mines, for flumes to carry water and for ties necessary to the railroads that carried ore to mills.

He tells the curious to inspect photographs taken of the Upper Blue River drainage early in the 20th century. Farr said there are not many trees left on hillsides. “That’s what kept the forest fires in the upper drainage to a minimum,” he said.

Prospectors also set fires, sometimes by mistake, but often deliberately.

Rock outcrops could be more easily discerned once the trees were gone. Also, trees scarred by fire might die, and hence they could be more easily cut and hauled away than green wood. But there were sometimes significant fires before the Forest Service arrived to stomp out all smoke. One of those larger affairs was found from Copper Mountain northwest across Vail and Shrine passes. That fire is believed to have occurred in the 1890s, and according to legend, was set by loggers seeking to cut dead wood. Green, or live, wood is enormously heavy. But Farr, and Sheakley, too, say practiced eyes can discern evidence of significant forest fires among them along Straight Creek. “Hiking out in the forest, you can find the charcoal, and if you look over the landscape from a distance, you can see the fire patterns in the tree stands,” Sheakley said. It all adds up, he said, to “a good history of intense fires in Summit County in the early part of the century.”

Some of those fires are reported in Mary Ellen Gilliland’s book, “Summit: A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado.”

How much did Indians use fire?

SUMMIT COUNTY – Indians dominated this region at one time. What was their story with fire?

As the miners grumpily tried to plunder precious metals from the land, the Ute Indians grudgingly resisted. Tensions escalated, peaking in 1879 with an incident that whites called the Meeker Massacre and that the Utes saw more as a military incursion onto their reservation. During that same time of hostility, heavy fires covered the state. The fires, newspapers said, were “spite fires” set by Utes.

Historians aren’t sure the story is so easy. Probably, some spite fires were set, but the Utes may have been blamed for fires kindled by others, or by lightning. Fires of that time created the Back Bowls of Vail, and Vail historian Don Simonton insists there is no proof the Indians did it.

Did the Utes use fire? Some say no, but other say yes.

Materials released in connection with the White River National Forest suggest fire was never used by the Utes in a major way, despite evidence that Indians elsewhere used fire.

But in the Gunnison Basin, just south of the White River National Forest, some foresters contend the Utes set fires annually, burning 40,000 to 70,000 acres a year, mostly sagebrush. By burning the sagebrush and grass, according to this theory, they encouraged regrowth and held encroaching forests at bay. In doing so, they attracted elk, bison, and antelope, giving them more larder on the hoof.

Also in the Gunnison Basin, evidence of much bigger fires has been found. One fire, or perhaps a combination of several fires, covered up to 1 million acres. That was in 1853, give or take a few years. This was 10 to 25 years before white settlement of that area.


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