Morgan Creek Fire now over 5K acres; crew using strategic burns to control fire |

Morgan Creek Fire now over 5K acres; crew using strategic burns to control fire

The Morgan Creek Fire is burning in an area with lots of down timber and beetle-killed trees, making it difficult for firefighters to get close to the fire while still having a safe way out. This photo shows efforts to back the fire down closer to the South Fork of the Elk River, where it will be easier to control and safer for firefighters. (Courtesy photo)

Updated mapping Monday night now has the Morgan Creek Fire at 5,117 acres, an increase of more than 700 acres since Sunday, though some of the increase is due to controlled burns.

Fire officials expected the fire to start the week with more activity, and it burned late into the night Monday, seeing growth mainly on the northeast side. But a shift in the weather Tuesday was expected to dampen activity through the rest of the week.

“What we have seen over the past two days is going to come to a very abrupt halt,” said Jay Godson, operations section chief for the fire in an update Tuesday.

Godson said cooler temperatures, higher relative humidity and rain forecast for several of the next few days are all factors expected to keep fire activity lower.

The fire still lacks any containment and now has more than 400 firefighters and support staff working on it, according to Inciweb, which provides update on fires across the country.

Most of the fire activity has been on the north side in an area referred to as Division Alpha. The fire has naturally grown closer to the South Fork of the Elk River on the north side, which Godson said puts it in a really good position to control.

Further east, firefighters used aerial ignition operations to burn off fuels near the fire’s edge in an attempt to have it move down the slope into a wetter meadow near the river at a slower, more manageable pace.

This picture shows the difference in smoke from aerial fire operations Sunday, with the natural burning fire being on the right with the larger smoke plume. The controlled burns are to the left of that plume, with small targeted burns emitting smaller smoke plumes. (Courtesy photo)

Monday was the second day of controlled burns that have added about 300 acres to the fire’s footprint. These burns may continue removing pockets of unburned fuels within the fires perimeter Tuesday, but Godson said that would depend on the weather.

These controlled burns are made using a plastic sphere dispenser to drop ping-pong ball-sized spheres over areas with rougher terrain instead of having firefighters start the burns on the ground.

“There are places … especially up on that north side, where it gets extremely difficult to get firefighters into,” said Brant Porter, a public information officer for the Morgan Creek Fire. “If it is hard to get into, it’s going to be hard for them to get out of, to have an escape route and safety zone.”

The goal of these drops is to straighten out the fire line and slowly move it down closer to the South Fork of the Elk River, which puts it in terrain where firefighters can more effectively and safely battle the blaze.

“They dropped them just outside the fire’s perimeter to be able to take a little bit of a bite of that unburned fuel and burn it back up into the fire’s perimeter,” Porter said.

These balls are prefilled with potassium permanganate, and a machine mounted to a helicopter injects them with ethylene glycol, a chemical often seen in green antifreeze used in vehicles, said Zack Hartshorn, assistant foreman with High Desert Helitack, in a video explaining the process.

The exothermic reaction, which means it produces heat, is usually delayed about 20 to 30 seconds from when the ball is injected. After it is injected, it is dropped from the helicopter, and the ball and any fuels around it will start on fire.

“We have the ability to control how much fire we are putting down, where we are putting it down and how much we are putting down,” Hartshorn said.

Not only does this allow crews to better strategize where these burns will take place and how to get the desired effects from the burn, but Hartshorn said it also limits how many people are in the area of the fire.

“Using those aerial ignitions is a way for us to use fire to help manage fire without requiring firefighters to be on the ground in those locations,” Porter said.

Morgan Creek Fire at a glance

Location: 15 miles north of Steamboat Springs in North Routt County near the Seedhouse and Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area

Size: 5,117 acres

Fuel: Heavy dead and down timber

Cause: Still under investigation

Date of ignition: 1 p.m. July 9

Firefighting personnel: 403

Containment: 0%

Source: Inciweb

Donations not needed

Firefighters cannot accept donations, and they are not needed as crews come to these fires well equipped, according to a post on the Morgan Creek Fire Facebook page Tuesday.

Firefighters get three meals per day that contain about 6,200 calories, and logistics personnel work on the fire to ensure they have the resources to fight the fire.

Fire officials instead suggest making signs showing support for firefighters and the work they are doing, which can boost morale in what is shaping up to be a long fire season.

Donations to local fire protection districts, which are often the first responders when these fires first break out, are also appreciated, the post said.

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