Forest Service officials close area after flare-up
Fire officials said they are keeping a watchful eye on the largest wildfire in Colorado on Wednesday, September 10, after a flare-up earlier in the week saw it grow from 233 acres to 1160 acres.
Currently, the fire is entirely within the West Elk wilderness area, 18 miles west of Gunnison, and is not threatening any homes or structures.
Strong winds over the weekend and on Monday caused the fire to grow quickly and prompted U.S. Forest Service officials to close the area as a precaution.
By Wednesday, however, rains and cooler weather in Gunnison County had dampened the wildfire. Fire management officer Jerry Chonka said he’d dismissed almost all the firefighting personnel that had responded to the fire earlier in the week. “We can always get them back,” Chonka said.
The West Elk Fire was started in early July by a lightning strike and was allowed to burn due to its isolated wilderness location and concerns over firefighter safety in the steep terrain.
Forest Service fire information officer Peggy Dobie said the area is popular with wilderness outfitters, hunters and hikers. “It does get some use, especially this time of year, with hunting season,” she said. With the area is closed to the public, Dobie said Forest Service personnel have been combing the area for people who might be unaware of the closure. “We’re sweeping the area to notify them and get everyone out,” she said.
The closure area encompasses the area north of Highway 50 between Soap Creek Road (Forest Road 721) and the ridge to the east of the Red Creek Road. Red Creek Road (Forest Road 723) is closed until further notice. Exact closure maps are available at the Gunnison National Forest Office, 216 N. Colorado in Gunnison.
Smoke from the fire has been clearly visible from Highway 50 and to boaters on the Blue Mesa Reservoir.
Fire officials will likely let the blaze, which is burning off beetle kill areas, burn itself out. In recent years, fire officials have started to analyze fires to determine the best strategy based on safety, costs and best use of resources.
Of particular concern in this case, according to Dobie, is the safety of firefighting personnel. Twenty-seven firefighters have been killed battling wildfires in the United States this year. “We’re cautious about putting people in the kind of terrain that this is in,” she said.
For now, fire managers will attempt to keep the fire within a certain area that exposes firefighters to the least risk. “For safety’s sake, we would like to have the fire come to us rather than place firefighters in harm’s way,” said Chonka.
According to Dobie, costs of managing the West Elk Fire have been minimal up to now, due to the confinement strategy. But that might change if another flare-up should occur.
Currently, the National Weather Service has not issued any Red Flag warnings for the area. A warning might indicate strong winds that could fan the fire’s flames further.
Dobie advises citizens to use caution in the coming weeks as they venture onto public lands. “As we move into hunting season, I would advise people that it is extremely dry out there,” she said. “Be careful with fire, cigarettes—the whole nine yards.”