Slurry bombers strike fire near Heeney |

Slurry bombers strike fire near Heeney

by Jane Stebbins

HEENEY – Lightning flashed and thunder boomed overhead as a slow-moving plane dropped fire-retarding slurry on a small fire between Black and Surprise lakes just south of Heeney and west of Dora Mountain in the Eagles Nest Wilderness area Monday afternoon.

It is believed the fire, which was estimated to be an acre-and-a-half in size, was started by lightning.

U.S. Forest Service officials, firefighters and sheriff officers set up an incident command center on the patio of Grady and Gail Culbreath’s Otter Creek ranch house. From there, they consulted topo maps, watched the thin tendril of smoke through telescopes, discussed the situation with the pilot of a scout plane circling the area and made plans to put firefighters on the ground.

The fire was reported at 1:06 p.m., said Shannon Gallagher, assistant engineering foreman for the Dillon Ranger District. Gail Culbreath was in Kremmling when she received a call from her daughter telling her there was a fire near the family ranch. It was less than two years ago that the Black Lakes fire burned three acres just south of this blaze.

A plane made four sweeps through the area at 3 p.m., dropping fire retardant on the forest to confine the blaze. The plane returned at 6 p.m. and dropped five more loads of slurry on the fire.

According to Grady, the area in which the fire is burning is forested, but there are flat areas and dry beaver ponds in which a helicopter could land. Additionally, nearby Black and Surprise lakes can easily be accessed by helicopters that might be used this week to drop water if the fire spreads. A helicopter was requested Monday evening, but officials said they had no idea when it might be available. Helicopters, slurry planes and firefighters have been spread thin responding to more than a dozen fires that have burned more than 200,000 acres throughout the West.

Almost a dozen firefighters from various parts of the High Country loaded into pickup trucks and followed Grady along a winding road toward the fire, where fire officials planned to spend the evening trying to contain the blaze.

Smoke plumed into the air after each slurry drop, and fire officials watched as a heavy cloud – one they hoped held rain, but didn’t – moved over the area.

The last lightning seen in the northern end of the county was on Wednesday, fire officials said. But lightning strikes can ignite a wildfire that doesn’t begin to spread for several days, said Eric Rebitzke, a fire manager for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit. Two fires in Eagle County started that way in the past week.

“The Fulford and Ute Creek fires were smoldering out there for a few days until the wind picked them up and got them going,” Rebitzke said. “They can sit and smolder in the pine needles and not put up much smoke at all. There’s a strong likelihood something is out there doing the same thing.”

The 8.5-acre Fulford fire began sending up billowing plumes of smoke from Porphyry Mountain south of Eagle on June 11, almost a week after any storms had moved through Eagle county. The Ute Creek blaze burned 40 acres near the Eagle County landfill June 8, several days after lightning strikes were reported. Firefighters also extinguished a small blaze June 20 above Red Cliff on the road to Shrine Pass.

Each of those fires were extinguished within 24 hours.

It took two days, however, to extinguish the small Ruby Lake fire north of Red Mountain above Silverthorne, said Bill Johnson, incident command officer at the Otter Creek fire. The Ruby Lake fire, which fire officials said was completely extinguished Monday evening, also was believed to have been started by lightning.

Even if the Otter Creek fire doesn’t get any larger, it still concerns local fire officials.

“We don’t want to take anything lightly,” said Jamie Connell, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service Dillon Ranger District. “Obviously, things are pretty dry.”

Colorado is suffering from its worst drought in a century after six years of low snow and rainfall. That has left forests tinder-dry and ripe for blazes such as the Hayman fire southwest of Denver, the Coal Seam fire in Glenwood Springs and the Missionary Ridge fire near Durango.

Locating a small fire is key to preventing its spread, said Cal Wettstein, district ranger in the Holy Cross district.

“We’ll watch for numerous ignitions and take steps to jump on them fast,” Wettstein said. “If there are any holdover strikes we haven’t detected, that can be a problem very fast. It makes us very nervous.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or The Vail Daily contributed to this article.

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