Sylvester Gulch fire an ongoing effort

Long-duration wildfire 

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

Gunnison County is closely monitoring and managing a small underground wildfire burning southeast of Somerset near the West Elk Mine, and while it is expected to continue burning for the foreseeable future measures have been taken to keep it from spreading. Gunnison County commissioners on Tuesday, July 26 passed a resolution declaring the continuation of an emergency in Gunnison County due to the Sylvester Gulch Fire, also known as the Somerset Coal Seam Fire.

The declaration is not set to expire until late fall. Gunnison County undersheriff Adam Murdie said that the approximately three-acre fire was first detected in May of this year. A second flare up occurred in late May, then another happened mid-June and the latest occurrence was detected around July 18. The challenge is that the fire is occurring on a coal seam with extensive fuel below ground, and it is burning in steep, rugged terrain preventing on-the-ground suppression with firefighting crews. “We don’t have personnel on it because it’s such a steep slope, 80 to 100 degrees or so,” estimated Murdie. 

The Ragged Mountain Fire Protection District declared the fire a disaster on July 19 and relegated authority of the fire to the Gunnison County Sheriff. Then late last week the sheriff’s department signed it over to the Division of Fire Prevention and Control. Tuesday’s resolution stated, “The magnitude and complexity of the incident and the response needed continues to exceed both the technical and monetary capabilities of the County.” 

Murdie explained that authorities have now placed a camera in proximity to the fire so they can monitor it 24/7. He said that on Monday, July 25 firefighters also applied a fire suppressant gel to the surrounding area. “It moistens the surrounding area, and that keeps it from creeping outward,” said Murdie. 

Because it is a complex, long-duration wildfire event the sheriff has asked that if anyone sees smoke in the area, they refrain from reporting it and keep in mind it is being closely monitored. 

“There are 12 open ports in that section of coal seam, so that’s what we’re really monitoring now,” he said. “Hopefully they can keep it contained at these three acres, and just keep it in those coal seams. We’re never going to be able to put it out underground,” he said, and noted that there are about 40 such perpetual underground fires throughout the state of Colorado. “So we’re doing well for now.”

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