According to Hinsdale Sheriff Ron Bruce, Lake City may have “dodged a bullet” Sunday afternoon, July 2, when a tree and surrounding ground vegetation were ignited by a lightning strike.
Thanks to quick action by a State of Colorado Dept. of Fire Protection Control (DFPC) helicopter and U.S. Forest Service fire fighting crews which were dispatched to the scene, the fire was quickly extinguished before spreading into a nearby stand of beetle-kill timber.
“Simply put,” says Sheriff Bruce, “we got lucky.” Due to its close proximity above Lake San Cristobal, Sheriff Bruce estimates that if the flames had expanded into the dead timber, the wildfire would have endangered the Town of Lake City within 24 hours.
According to Bruce, the lightning strike was first called in at 12:48 p.m. Sunday after being sighted by seasonal residents Alan & Donna Wasserman near Wupperman Campground on the opposite side of the lake. As explained by Sheriff Bruce, the blaze started when lighting struck a pine tree.
The situation was complicated by the fact that the lightning blaze occurred on BLM lands located in rugged terrain approximately 1,300’ above County Road 30 on the west side of Lake San Cristobal and accessible only by a steep climb up the mounatinside or by air.
After receiving notification of the fire, Sheriff Bruce in turn contacted officials in the Gunnison F.S. office, urging them to immediately dispatch a helicopter to contain the fire at its start. Bruce says the helicopter arrived on the scene around 2:30 p.m. Sunday, with operations pretty well wrapped up by 5 p.m.
The modified Bell 205 helicopter dispatched to Lake City is capable of transporting nine people and is capable of lifting up to 3,000-lb. The helicopter arrived carrying both crew members and ground support firefighters who were transported to the fire scene. At the scene, firefighters worked to build and strengthen the containing fire line while also cutting and removing flammable fuel.
In addition to F.S.firefighters Paul Dziekan, Nicoli Lewing, and Earl Huie with F.S. Engine 671 out of Gunnison, and two BLM firefighters from Montrose, local organizations responding to the scene were Hinsdale County Sheriff’s Dept., Lake City Fire/Rescue, Hinsdale Emergency Medical Services and the county’s Wildland Crew. Members from each entity watched the smoke column rising from the mountainside.
Fire support activities were coordinated from a command post which was hastily set up on County Road 30 and utilized safety spotters located across the lake at Wupperman Campground
In the event more fire fighting equipment might be needed, additional F.S. engine trucks were stationed on Highway 149 at 9-Mile Hill near Blue Mesa and also in Montrose.
Assisting the F.S. crew and aiding in the fire response were members of Lake City Fire/Rescue and the county’s wildland team, two of whom, Kenny Athey from the local volunteer fire dept. and Rick Hernandez, hiked up the steep scree mountainside to reach the fire.
According to Hernandez, initial response classified it as a county fire to be battled utilizing local resources. Owing to the fact the fire was on Federal land, the determination was made that local resources were not adequate to assure containment based on varying weather conditions and the close proximity of up-slope fuel.
The Bell helicopter’s key role in promptly extinguishing the blaze was in delivering water which was dumped onto the fire with a conical-shaped, 324-gallon water container connected to the helicopter by cable.
The helicopter made a total of 14 flights back and forth from the mountain, down to the lake surface to scoop water into the large bucket and then back up the mountainside to drop the payload onto the fire.
According to Hernandez, the fire — a tree which was ignited after being struck by lighting and a surrounding quarter acre of undergrowth into which the blaze spread — was contained within a secured fireline by evening on July 2, after which “mopping up” occurred as flames and smoke were doused, and the fire declared “controlled.”
The fire site was monitored throughout the early portion of this week and wasn’t ruled fully extinguished until mid-week. A F.S. fire fighting crew from Colbran, Colorado, was on the mountainside monitoring the location of the fire on Monday. Crew members Philip Brass, Todd Foley, Andres Laboy, Jr., Nathaniel Katherein, Samuel Voet and Ryan Hannigan are temporarily based out of Gunnison this week in advance of an anticipated increase in fire activity in the region.
Sunday afternoon’s fire, according to Wildland Fireteam’s Rick Hernandez, “was a small-scale proving ground for the pre-season trainings which we have engaged in and supports continued building of our local Wildland Fire suppression capabilities.
“We are truly fortunate to have strong working relationships with our state and federal partners.”