Lowline Fire not a threat to local towns, smoke will linger

Fire headed to wilderness and will likely be around until snow

By Mark Reaman

Let’s start with the top-of-mind concern: While there are certainly immediate impacts with the growing Lowline Fire located about 10 miles southwest of Crested Bute and 14 miles northwest of Gunnison (think smokey skies and limited access to the Ohio Creek Valley) officials dealing with the fire are confident that both the municipalities are safe from fire danger. 

“There is no immediate danger to Crested Bute or Gunnison,” said Rick Barton, fire information officer for the Rocky Mountain Complex Incident Management Team on Tuesday. “The focus is on human safety and structure protection in the Mill Creek and Ohio Valley area.”

That’s not to say the fire is extinguished. And in fact, during a public meeting held Tuesday evening in Gunnison and streamed on Facebook Live, several officials said the fire is expected to burn through the remainder of the fire season. Expect smoke to originate from the area until the first big snow. The good news there is that the fire should head west and into the nearby wilderness area and not toward populated areas.

“There is still fire on the ground,” emphasized Barton. “It is in an area with a lot of spruce bug kill. There is a lot of dead and downed fuel built up. That is why this fire will take a long time to put to bed.”

But there are more than 400 people on the ground or working as support staff to handle the fire. Barton said people from 21 states are represented on the crews and at any one time there are representatives of between 25 and 40 different agencies involved with containing the fire. Barton said that is a lot for the current situation in Colorado but is small when compared to what was needed for some past Colorado wildfires like the East Troublesome Fire in 2020 that burned quickly and consumed almost 194,000 acres.

The Lowline Fire was first reported on July 26 and is believed to have started from a lightning strike. As of Wednesday, August 2, the Lowline Fire was spread out over 1,693 acres and was 38% contained. For the first time in weeks there was some monsoon moisture in the area. That has helped crews keep the fire suppressed and let hand crews make progress with fire line preparation and construction.

Weather impacts

Incident meteorologist Scott Stearns out of Grand Junction said however, the monsoon rains are quickly ending. “The monsoon rains are not here to stay,” he said Tuesday. “And they probably won’t return for at least a couple of weeks or through the end of August. So, the fire is likely to continue moving west toward the wilderness area. That means we should expect smoke activity to continue.”

The early week moisture did give crews a chance to do some prep work. “We have been doing quite a bit of defensive or back burning,” explained Barton. “We put in dozer lines and water suppression systems. One drawback of the moisture is that it won’t let us burn as the fuels become too wet. But we are focused on protecting structures and trying to turn the fire toward itself.”

The forecast is expected to become hot and dry by the weekend. 

Operations section chief Paul Delmerico said one good thing is the fire is encountering aspen trees and they don’t burn well especially after a big snow winter.  “But there is still some work ahead of us,” he said. “We predict there will be fire in the wilderness area for weeks and probably longer.” 

Gunnison County sheriff Adam Murdie complimented all the responders and said coordination has been smooth and supportive. His office is keeping on an eye on road closures and evacuation orders. 

Lisa Clay of the county’s Emergency Operations Center said people should remain aware and if they receive a preliminary evacuation notice that means they should prepare to leave the area. A mandatory evacuation notice means they should leave immediately because there is an imminent threat. ”Don’t call 9-1-1 to get more information,” she said. She reminded people that large animals can be taken to be housed at the Gunnison County Fairgrounds for free. She also said there are resources on the county’s website on how to prepare for and mitigate the threat of wildfires.

Russ Bacon of the U.S. Forest Service reiterated that the Lowline Fire is not going away anytime soon despite an excellent initial response from everyone involved. “Rain won’t stop this fire,” he said. “It will put up smoke for the duration of the fire season. The community needs to be patient and helpful and they have been great so far. This fire indicates how fire can and will operate on the landscape of the Gunnison Basin. The good thing is you have the right team in place to manage the fire. It will be a long-term fire.”

Both he and the Bureau of Land Management said they are looking at ways to implement projects that would mitigate future wildfires on the ground.

Fire can be a good thing for the area

In the long run fire is actually a good thing for healthy forests and the timing of the Lowline Fire is not bad. A local forest expert sees the fire as a positive thing at the moment.

“My take is that this fire is exactly what that area needs. We have not had really significant fire in most of our forests since the late 19th century and for fire-dependent ecosystems, that is a long time,” said Western Colorado University forest ecologist Dr. Jonathan Coop in an email to the CB News this week. “There is a lot of mixed aspen/conifer in that landscape and without fire the aspen will continue to decline. As with many of our forests in the area there were also growing forest health issues. The Lowline Fire will kick start a lot of aspen regeneration and provide a hard reset for the conifers where they burn severely, as well as opening up the canopy and providing sun and nutrients to all other plant species. 

“The areas that burn at different severities (including the torching and crown fire that occurred Wednesday) will create a mosaic that translates to greater ecological and biological diversity,” Coop continued. “Finally, there are also very high quantities of dead and down fuels in this area and fire is the best fuel reduction treatment that money can buy.”

Coop said the fire activity that occurred on Wednesday highlights just how much fuel there is and how dry it is out there. “If this ignition had occurred with a forecast for strong winds and zero chance of rain this might be a very different conversation,” he said. “The Gunnison Valley has been ultra-lucky not to have experienced the kinds of megafires we have seen occurring increasingly often elsewhere in the state over the last 20-some years. Every year without a fire, fuels will continue to accumulate, and the climate is only becoming more and more fire conducive. So while I would say this fire is a positive for our forests, it is not much of a stretch of the imagination that at some point conditions will align for extreme wildfire and the outcome might be different.”

Barton agreed with Coop. “This will really be good for the area,” he said. “The forest will regenerate itself. We don’t want to see people hurt. We don’t want to lose houses. We are trying to fully suppress this fire. But down the road, it will be a healthier forest as a result of this incident.”

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