Wildfire flared up near Walrod in Cement Creek this past weekend

Local firefighters responded, managing the situation

By Alissa Johnson

A fire broke out late Sunday afternoon in the Cement Creek drainage, just past the Walrod turnoff and to the north of the Cement Creek campground. Forest Service crews are working on containing the 10-acre fire; containment was expected to be on Wednesday, June 22.

At the site on Sunday evening, it appeared the fire had started in the vicinity of a popular, undeveloped camping area located between the natural spring on Walrod and the Cement Creek trail, about a half-mile before the Cement Creek campground.

A large portion of the grassy hillside appeared to have burned already, with firefighters visibly active in the burned area and the fire burning above them in steep, rocky terrain at the top of the ridge. Significant smoke rose from the hillside, and an occasional flame burst above the trees at the top of the hill. A helicopter made frequent trips to drop water on the fire.

According to Ric Ems, fire chief with the Crested Butte Fire Protection District, the district became aware of the fire around 2:15 p.m. and his crews were first on the scene.

“We were inundated with 911 calls,” Ems said.

Twenty fire personnel and EMTs responded from the district, including four staff and 16 volunteers.

When they arrived on the scene, Ems said that the looker’s left flank of the fire was “going pretty good” and the right flank was heading toward a rock band. The crew concentrated its efforts on the left flank, digging a line to prevent the fire from spreading toward Walrod Gulch. It was not easy work—Ems said the crew had to carry water to the top in five-gallon bladders.

“Everybody did a great job,” he said, noting that several had just attended the Colorado Wildland Fire & Incident Management Academy in Gunnison in early June.

Ems had notified the Forest Service of the fire, and both Forest Service crews and the Mt. Crested Butte Police Department joined the Crested Butte Fire Protection District at the scene. At that point, they set up a unified command and made decisions together.

According to Forest Service spokesperson Lee Ann Loupe, the agency learned of the fire at 2:25 p.m. “A Crested Butte Fire Protection District engine and the Forest Service responded to the fire and we worked cooperatively with them as part of a coordinated fire response,” Loupe said.

Loupe confirmed that the “head of the fire was in rough, rocky, broken terrain,” in a mixed conifer and aspen forest on steep, rocky, inaccessible terrain.

The agency had a state helicopter on standby and the group made the call to have the helicopter bring in water to douse the fire using a bucket.

According to Ems, the Crested Butte Fire Protection District has an agreement with the Buckhorn Homeowners Association that allows them to utilize water from a pond for fire suppression. The helicopter pilot initially flew there for water but noticed a pond at the home of Robin and John Norton in Cement Creek. Law enforcement secured permission to resupply at the pond instead.

“If you land at Buckhorn every time, you have to go up and over the mountain,” Ems said. “Shuttling up Cement Creek there is just a little bit of a lift, so it’s a much more efficient use of resources.”

According to Loupe, crews also worked on establishing a fireline below the fire and extinguishing the fire at its flanks to create a “cold trail,” or burned vegetation and rock that has no heat and forms a containment line.

By Sunday evening, the Crested Butte Fire Protection District turned over management of the fire to the Forest Service. Agency crews continued to fight the fire using two Forest Service engines and a Bureau of Land Management engine as well as the helicopter, which made more trips on Monday.

By Tuesday, the Forest Service estimated that the fire was 80 percent contained. By Wednesday, according to Loupe, one engine would likely be released and one would remain onsite to monitor the scene and put out hot spots.

“One engine will continue to ensure that the fire doesn’t flare back up,” she said. At that time, the cause of the fire was not known.

Both Loupe and Ems made a point of thanking local homeowners for lending their water to the cause. “We would like to acknowledge the willingness of a nearby landowner to allow the use of their pond to provide water to assist with this fire and are very appreciative of their assistance,” Loupe wrote in a statement.

Ems also pointed out that it’s early in the season. “The public should be aware and keep an eye on each other and report things that they see. Things are going to be drying out before they are getting wetter,” he said.

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