Updated: Trio of helicopters battle Morgan Creek Fire, broad forest closure as fire nears 2K acres (with photos) | SteamboatToday.com

Updated: Trio of helicopters battle Morgan Creek Fire, broad forest closure as fire nears 2K acres (with photos)

A trio of helicopters made drops over the Morgan Creek Fire on Sunday as officials have issued a broad forest closure, shuttering many of the most popular trails in North Routt County.

A Chinook dual-blade helicopter and two smaller helicopters with buckets made drops of the northwest portion of the fire, with each copter releasing water every 5 to 7 minutes.

At the Clark Store to the west of the fire, 17-year-old Adia Clark Lay was at work scooping ice cream, but said she had a bag packed in case the fire were to shift directions. The fire is currently moving to the southeast.

The extensive forest closure, which stretches from near Clark into Jackson County, came late Saturday night and restricts all public use of the area.

Crews are seeing people recreating in the area on Sunday, which Hutson Vann, public information officer for the fire, said is likely because they got there before barricades went up around noon.

“The safety of the firefighters and the public is our No. 1 concern,” Vann said.

Vann said crews are scouting the undeveloped terrain for potential locations to land a medical helicopter if that kind of medical assistance was needed.

A new Type 3 incident management team from Wyoming took control of the fire at 6 a.m. Sunday, and there were about 65 personnel working the fire then, according to Inciweb, which provides updates on fires across the country.

The fire is estimated to be about 1,927 acres, but Vann said it has grown since that estimate on Saturday night. An aerial crew will fly over the fire Sunday evening and an updated map and acreage is expected Monday morning.

An inversion, which is where warm air traps cooler air below it, has kept smoke low across the Yampa Valley but allowed the new incident management team to fly over and get a look at the fire on Sunday afternoon.

“Although it is never fun for people to inhale that, it actually helps with firefighter activities to be a little more successful and to lay eyes on it,” Vann said.

There are several spots around the southeast, south and southwest parts of the fire that are wind and terrain driven creating what firefighters call fingers. This is when the fire spots outside of the perimeter and then burns back toward the perimeter.

There is currently a voluntary pre-evacuation order in place for residents along the Seedhouse corridor. Vann said the only structures close to the fire seem to be one grouping of four buildings at the Wapiti Ranch.

Vann said firefighters were extremely confident about the ability to defend the area because of mitigation efforts and the terrain of the area, which includes some marsh.

“(Firefighters) praised that private property’s defensible space,” Vann said, adding that mitigation crews are assessing structures in the area.

The origin of the fire is believed to be south of Hinman Campground, which is south of Seedhouse, Routt County Road 64 and Forest Roads 440 and 442. Vann said firefighters were working in this northwest corner of the fire to put in both direct and indirect fire lines on the left and right flank of the fire. This is where most of the direct firefighting is taking place.

“With fires that is pretty normal, you always start at the hill to try to anchor and then flank and pinch,” Vann said.

The new crew is still scouting places for larger contingency lines. The southeastern side of the fire reached the Middle Fork Fire burn scar and went out, which Vann said means the scar will likely help with containment of the fire.

There are a few helicopters making drops over the fire, and Vann said they have made requests for more resources. Still, with an active fire season, resources are also phasing out of use, as most firefighting crews will work for 14 days in a row before rotating out.

It is too early to know is this will be a long duration fire like the Muddy Slide Fire in South Routt. Vann said crews should have better estimates about that after they have spent more time working on the fire.

The closure is larger than last year for the Middle Fork Fire, extending from the National Forest boundary near Clark, north to Big Agnes Mountain, east over the divide to the forest boundary in Jackson County near Red Canyon, and south to Mount Ethel.

The Morgan Creek Fire has led to a broad closure in the Zirkel Wilderness, including many popular trails.

Trails include any along Seedhouse Road, icluding the Zirkel Circle, Gold Creek Lake, Three Islands Lake, Mica Lake, Mount Zirkel Summit, a section of the Continental Divide Trail and more. Several trailheads are impacted by this closure, including some in Jackson County like the Grizzly-Helena Trail.

Muddy Slide Update

Windy conditions on Saturday halted the use of helicopters on Routt County’s other fire, as recent weather has increased fire activity, a trend that is expected to continue through the beginning of the week, according to InciWeb.

Things will continue to dry out on Monday, though a few isolated showers and thunderstorms are forecast for the fire area. There may be more Tuesday and Wednesday, which could produce wind gusts of 20 miles per hour.

The main concern from these storms, especially if they are dry, is that a wind gust could spread the fire more, or a lightning strike could spark it back up. Still, the estimated size of the Muddy Slide Fire has not changed in over a week, with it still at 4,093 acres and it has now reached 50% containment.

While the mandatory evacuation order has been lifted, Routt County Road 16 is still closed, along with several trails and forestry roads in the area.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.