French Gulch Fire caused by lightning, investigators say
From the road, all you could see was a plume of smoke billowing up from the densely treed ridge, but the periodic hum of chainsaws betrayed the frenzy of activity beneath the brown boughs of beetle-killed lodgepole pines.
As the French Gulch Fire burned just a mile away from the Wellington neighborhood in Breckenridge last Monday, firefighters from the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District (RWB), Forest Service and Dillon Fire were working hard to contain it, preventing the one-acre blaze from threatening the town.
That meant hacking away with mattocks at the duff — the thick layer of fallen needles and leaves that act as kindling — and cutting down trees ahead of the blaze. It can be backbreaking work, but it’s the only way to contain the spread.
With the fire sufficiently under control, the sleuthing to determine the cause began.
“We use a kind of scientific method,” explained RWB deputy chief Jay Nelson. “We start with theories that we have to prove wrong, working in from the least damaged to the most damaged areas.”
In the midst of the ash and fallen timbers, investigators are often able to pinpoint the exact ignition point and will sometimes even find the offending cigarette butt or old campfire.
At the site of the French Gulch Fire, investigators found a tree that was struck by lightning the night before, starting the blaze. Lightning is a common cause of wildfires, and sometimes strikes ignite fuel that smolders for days beneath the duff before surfacing.
The large temperature swings buffeting Summit County have put the area at a somewhat elevated risk for fire. Summit’s fire danger has even been listed as high since Sept. 7. Nighttime freezes kill off grasses and other small plant life, and significantly higher daytime temperatures dry them out quickly.
Luckily, however, the French Gulch strike fell at a good spot: fires typically spread uphill, but the area above the fire had been clear cut recently as part of a fuel reduction, providing a fire break.
Still, periodic dry spells leave the risk of wildfires very real, and while the county has avoided major wildfires this season, it’s not out of the woods yet.
“We’re still in fire season until we get a significant amount of moisture or until we get snow on the ground that stays,” said Nelson.
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