Beating the blaze: A year after the Silver Creek Fire
A year after the Silver Creek Fire engulfed more than 20,000 acres near Steamboat, heavy snowpack and frequent moistures have lowered the area's risk for large blazes. But as the vegetation dries, firefighters brace for battle.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Friday marked one year since the Silver Creek Fire sparked northwest of Kremmling in Routt National Forest and burned more than 20,120 acres, according to data from the Rocky Mountain Incident Coordination Center.
The blaze, which lasted until October, caused multiple communities and hundreds of people in Grand and Routt counties to evacuate their homes. It also closed thousands of acres of public land, including the areas west of U.S. Highway 40 and north of Colorado Highway 134 managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, as well as the Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area.
The Silver Creek Fire was just one among 229 that burned in Northwest Colorado last year, one of the worst and most expensive fire seasons on record. Flames consumed a total of more than 108,000 across Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Jackson and Grand counties — nearly double the acreage from 2017 and more than any fire season in the past 20 years.
Fire forecasters anticipate a much milder fire season this summer, but a wet winter and spring has proliferated vegetation in and around Steamboat. As temperatures rise, and if a drying trend sets in, that vegetation could turn into a tinderbox.
Remembering last year’s fire season
While the Silver Creek Fire did not destroy any homes or structures in Routt County — most of it occurred in wilderness areas, and firefighters allowed the flames to burn out on their own within containment areas — local emergency personnel prepared for the worst last summer.
“We had some measure in place that if the fire crossed certain lines, we would take action,” said David “Mo” Demorat, the county’s emergency management director.
Personnel from multiple agencies within the county, including Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue and West Routt Fire Protection District, assisted state and federal firefighters in battling the blaze to mitigate danger to the public.
- Date of origin: July 19, 2018, approximately 2:30 p.m.
- Location of origin: 16 miles northwest of Kremmling
- Cause: Lightning strike
- Size: 20,120 acres
“We all had to work together,” said Colt Mortenson, fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management’s northwest region.
Every morning, he and managers from other agencies would talk over the phone to discuss an action plan and how best to collaborate their resources. But the long days, filled with muscle-aching physical labor and, at times, triple-digit temperatures, took a toll.
“It was rough on the firefighters, and it was rough on the public,” Mortenson remembers.
More moisture, fewer fires
This year has been much calmer for firefighters, according to Mortenson, though he had just returned late Friday from fighting the Shed Fire near Meeker, which had grown to 175 acres before the weekend.
A moisture-heavy winter in the Yampa Valley, which saw its deepest snowpack in five years, has helped reduce the risk of substantial wildfires.
For May, June and most of July, Valerie Meyers, a fire meteorologist with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, called for a lower-than-average fire risk for Steamboat and the surrounding forests. She expects more moisture and cooler temperatures in the next month, which should keep the risk of large blazes low.
“Mother Nature has granted a little bit of a reprieve in many respects compared to last year,” Meyer said. “But it is still up to us as human beings to maintain that defensible space and do all that is possible to prevent a fire from occurring,” Meyers said.
While Routt County has not experienced a wildfire yet this year (knock on wood), local emergency and fire personnel are preparing for potential blazes.
“We have been fortunate with the amount of moisture we had, but if we get a drying spell, the conditions could get much worse,” DeMorat said.
- Create a defensible space of at least 30 feet around your house and outbuildings.
- Keep grass, both green and dormant, closely mowed. Space trees wide apart and prune lower tree branches well up from the ground. Keep tall grass, brush and trees out from under utility lines to protect essential services.
- Make sure roads and driveways are passable by wide vehicles in all types of weather and that bridges are strong enough to support heavy, water-laden fire trucks.
- Make your home address easily visible and include both your house number and street name in your address.
- Establish fuel breaks along roadways and between buildings and fields or woodlands.
- Keep mufflers and spark arrestors on agricultural equipment in proper working order, and watch out for rocks and metal when bush hogging or mowing.
- Monitor hay baling operations closely. Check for hot bearings or hay caught in rollers. Keep a fire extinguisher handy.
- Watch out for sparks when using welding equipment to build fences or repair equipment.
- Avoid driving or parking vehicles in grassy areas where tall, dry grass can come into contact with hot pollution control equipment under your vehicle.
- Postpone outdoor burning until your area greens up. Check with your local fire department to determine if all restrictions on outdoor burning have been lifted.
Source: Routt County Emergency Management website
This year’s plentiful moisture has been a double-edged sword. On one hand, wetter conditions mean lesser risk of fire. On the other, such conditions allow vegetation to flourish. Meyer has seen grass as tall as 4 to 5 feet, and DeMorat has noticed robust hay fields on nearby farms.
“If we do get a drying trend, as we typically do, that could lead to more fuel and more opportunities for a fire to break out,” DeMorat said. “That is something that we are aware of.”
With that in mind, his office has tried to be proactive in preparing for this fire season.
Preparing for fire season
Despite lower risks, people should remain vigilant about the potential for fire danger, DeMorat emphasized, and take steps to prevent them. These include dousing campfires completely with water, throwing cigarette butts in trash receptacles instead of on the ground and keeping up to date on any fire restrictions.
About 85% of wildfires are caused by humans, according to Wildland Fire Management Information and U.S. Forest Service Research Data Archive. Another fire, which burned about an acre of grassland near Rangely, appears to be the result of illegal dumping, according to Mortenson.
On Tuesday, he will meet with multiple agencies to discuss potential fire restrictions for the area, which could include Routt County.
Since hosting a Wildfire Mitigation Conference in May, DeMorat and fire experts have been working to establish a Routt County wildfire council, with the hopes of bolstering local mitigation efforts.
One of the initiatives he hopes to implement through the council, perhaps as early as this summer, is a wood chipping program to encourage residents to clear and dispose of dry vegetation, branches and shrubs from around their homes.
“That is one way to get rid of some of the hazardous fuels in neighborhoods,” he said.
DeMorat also has been conducting community outreach at events around town, namely the Main Street Steamboat Farmers Market, as a way to educate people about wildfires and encourage them to register for Routt County’s emergency alert program.
“The most important thing we can do is make sure the public knows what’s going on,” he said.
While calls for service have been few and far between thus far this summer, Mortenson has appreciated the calm at his office in Craig. He hopes a storm, metaphorical or otherwise, does not follow.
“I’m pretty happy to be bored compared to what we had last year,” he said.
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