Walden — Fresh on the job as a fire management officer for the Routt National Forest, Ich Stewart felt the pressure.
It was three days after a person started the Beaver Creek fire in Jackson County, and Stewart was in charge of managing it and protecting the homes and property interspersed within the forest.
Additional firefighters from throughout the country, along with supplies, had not arrived yet to help the firefighting effort, and Stewart’s resources were stretched thin.
Fire weather was ideal, and things were about to blow up on the east side of the Continental Divide.
Immediately at risk were 29 structures, mostly small cabins tucked into the woods that are used in the summer.
Stewart believed keeping the fire from crossing Forest Service Road 600 was essential, but the fire did not cooperate.
“It was just solid black,” Stewart said while driving past where the fire jumped over the road. “Smoke and fire.”
The pressure had taken a toll.
“I thought for sure we lost every home,” Stewart said. “I just got down on my hands and knees and started throwing up.”
Stewart was not exaggerating, and he was surprised to learn that the homes had survived.
“I was relieved,” he said.
After witnessing the extreme fire activity leading up to the big blow up, Stewart was amazed there was not more destruction. So were his colleagues.
“Every two weeks, when this fire blows up, you hear the exact same comments from all the old men that are running these teams that have been doing fire for two or three decades,” Stewart said. “They all say, ‘I’ve never seen fire do that before.’”
The Beaver Creek fire started June 19, and the snow had just melted.
What firefighters witnessed was unbelievable.
Willows in marshes would spontaneously combust from the intense heat.
“That’s spooky when you see that,” Stewart said.
The same thing happened to green grass that was so wet it soaked your boots.
“The heat is so intense that it’s going to cure and dry any available fuel,” Stewart said.
A half mile away from the flames, firefighters reported feeling radiant heat on their faces.
As of last week, the Beaver Creek fire had burned nearly 40,000 acres. To date, $28,547,187 has been spent to fight the fire. While only one home has been lost, fire officials said more fires are imminent in future years. Homeowners and communities need to be prepared.
At the heart of the intense fire activity is the dead, beetle-killed lodgepole pine trees that litter the forests in the Rocky Mountains. For years, fire officials have known the trees present a threat.
Bill Gabbert, who runs the WildfireToday website, spent 33 years fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. He also served as executive director of the National Association of Wildland Fire.
He explained that after a lodgepole pine tree is killed by beetles, its needles start to dry out and turn red within two years. In five to 15 years, the trees start to fall over and do not always land flat on the ground.
While flying over the Beaver Creek fire, Stewart observed the intense fire swirling, fueled by regional winds as well as winds created by the fire itself. Intense crown fires occurred, with the fire jumping from the top of one tree to another.
Many of the dead trees were partially fallen and stacked on top of each other.
“It’s the stage that beetle kill is at right now,” Stewart said. “It’s like the perfect Boy Scout campfire.”
The condition of the beetle-killed trees presents a danger, but Gabbert said the bigger danger is drought conditions and dry summers with strong winds.
“Having said that, people need to remove flammable vegetation within 100 feet of their houses,” Gabbert said.
Making a guess
At large fires, one of the tools used is computer modeling software that takes into account things like the weather and burnable material in the area.
The default settings for the modeling program can be adjusted to produce a different forecast.
“You give your best educated guess,” said Colt Mortenson, who is the fire manager for the Bureau of Land Management in the Northwest Colorado region.
The models at Beaver Creek were initially way off.
“It’s growing in ways we weren’t capable of predicting,” Stewart said.
As the fire progressed, managers made adjustments to the model to get a better idea of what the fire might do.
Fires like Beaver Creek have forced firefighters to come up with different strategies for managing fires.
Sending firefighters directly toward the fire lines is too dangerous because of falling trees, which is the fifth leading cause of wildland firefighter deaths.
With extreme fire activity, suppressing the fire directly can be a hopeless battle.
Instead, firefighters use features like rock formations and roads to control how the fire spreads.
They wait for the fire to reach meadows and grass areas, where traditional tactics are still effective. Retardant dropped from planes helped stopped the fire from spreading through grass toward houses at the Beaver Creek fire.
To protect structures, firefighters at the Beaver Creek fire wrapped homes in protective foil. Sprinkler systems, with water reservoirs and generators to power pumps, were set up around homes.
It proved successful in most cases.
Most importantly, fire managers have learned to be patient and to wait for opportunities to efficiently fight the fire.
“This fire keeps doing things that no one has ever seen fires do before, so this is really kind of a pivotal fire in our state because we’re learning how to fight fire — we’re developing the tactics — we’re writing the book right now,” Stewart said. “The problem is how do you carry that message to the public so they understand that firefighters are dealing with some new conditions, so the old ways of doing business aren’t going to work.”
It is still a waiting game at Beaver Creek.
“Find areas where you can be successful and safe, which means your costs are going to go up,” Stewart said. “ We can’t say we want to get this thing caught in the next two weeks. We can’t do that. You have to accept that you’re not going to put it out until the winter storms come.”
At the end of the fire season, fire managers will review what they learned this past summer from the Beaver Creek fire.
“All winter long, it’s just sort of a continuous thing,” said Kevin Thompson, another fire management officer for the Routt National Forest.
There are lives and property at risk but also taxpayer dollars.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, changing climate conditions are increasing temperatures and causing more fires.
Fire management represented 16 percent of the Forest Service’s budget in 1995. In 2015, 50 percent of their budget was dedicated to fighting fires.
By 2025, they expect fire suppression will encompass two-thirds of the budget with an expense of nearly $1.8 billion, meaning $700 million in reductions to non-fire programs.
Fires like the one at Beaver Creek are contributing to that cost.
“We’re definitely going to see them for years to come,” Mortenson said.
Residents and communities should be prepared.
“We need to have our ducks in a row before it hits Steamboat,” Stewart said.
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