Quick Response Douses Hill 71 Forest Fire Tues.
Lake City had a front row seat for an aggressive response to a probable lightning-caused fire which occurred in beetle-killed spruce trees on the flanks of Hill 71 Mountain on Tuesday afternoon, June 5.
The fire and its immediate response by a combination of Forest Service, BLM and local firefighters were clearly visible from Lake City and from vantage points at Lake San Cristobal and Slumgullion Pass.
A slender white column of smoke was seen issuing from dead timber just below a rocky outcropping on a ridge to the north of the Hill 71 communications site shortly before 3 p.m. on Tuesday.
The size of the fire was limited to just 1.6-acre described as a mix of standing dead spruce adjacent to an open ridge which provided a natural firebreak.
It is likely that a lightning strike which occurred during a rainstorm Sunday afternoon, June 3, left sparks which smoldered until fire ignited on Tuesday. According to spectators in town, trees exploded in flames as the fire began to spread, flames at times spiraling up out of the forest.
The fire — christened the Saw Mill Fire due to its proximity to the Saw Mill Park Road — was classified as 50 percent contained on Wednesday morning, June 6, with expectations that by 4 p.m. the blaze would be fully contained.
From Lake City and at homes and businesses up valley as far as Lake San Cristobal, people eagerly scanned the Hill 71 horizon as the smoke column steadily expanded on Tuesday. With residents on decks and the boardwalk intently peering through binoculars, and lines of cars along Highway 149 and County Road 30 pulled to the side at key vantage points, the drama unfolded as reconnaissance airplanes and air tanker helicopter repeatedly traversed the smoke-filled the sky.
Due to the fire’s close proximity to Lake City and the upper Lake Fork Valley, the response to the fire by the Forest Service and BLM, and local firefighting agencies, was swift and aggressive.
Eight tactical smokejumpers based out of Boise, Idaho, were dropped to the scene by parachute, joining upwards of 30 Forest Service and BLM firefighters who were at the fire scene Tuesday evening. Also on the scene were members of the Wildland Fire Response Team, Sam Fyler and Rick Hernandez, joined by Hinsdale Sheriff’s Office personnel who coordinated communications from their Lake City office and an outpost from a roadside parking area near Dave Smith’s Index Lode property on Slumgullion Pass.
The number of firefighters on the ground at the fire was reduced from 30 on Tuesday to 21 as of Wednesday morning.
The fire’s rapid containment is credited to quick response and a tactical barrage which, in addition to the smokejumpers and on-the-ground firefighters, included the Type II Alamosa-based Sikorsky helicopter with 300-gallon water tank and six-member crew which made repeated trips to Lake San Cristobal to siphon water and return up mountain to the fire site.
In addition to dumping water on the fire, the helicopter also provided was for use by the ground firefighters.
The Sikorsky helicopter tanker, pictured at the top of page 2 and also on the front page of this week’s issue, saw prior use late last week at the small wildfire on the opposite side of the Continental Divide, at Big Buck Creek above Continental Reservoir.
The smoke-filled air literally swarmed with reconnaissance aircraft on Tuesday afternoon, an essential part of the fire’s eventual containment being two drops of red-hued fire retardant slurry which were delivered by two Type I air tankers from Grand Junction.
Ground equipment on the scene include two fire engines, one three-person and one five-person.
According to FS spokesperson Glen Sachet, there is considerable danger to firefighters as a result of the hazardous beetle-killed timber. “They’re making progress,” he says, “but going very slowly and carefully.”
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