Drought, Forest Overgrowth Contributors to Red Canyon Fire

Aug 14, 2013

Strong winds yesterday, whipped up flames on a wildfire burning south of Glenwood Springs. The Red Canyon Fire grew to 350 acres and mandatory evacuations forced 15 families from their homes. The fire is burning in rugged terrain, in a Pinyon/Juniper forest. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen was with firefighters when the blaze blew up and started creeping toward them. She filed this report.

Within the matter of a few minutes, the Red Canyon Fire grew from a couple of flare-up’s and extensive lingering smoke to a massive black and gray smoke plume. And, it was headed toward us.

"I was noticing those winds shifting. (They were) 25 miles an hour," said Hank Ven Berlo, a Carbondale Firefighter.

He drove me out of the area as quickly as possible. Before we scurried away, we surveyed the burn area, acres and acres of scorched land surrounded by green, heavily vegetated mountainsides.

"So, we’re in the black right now. We’re completely surrounded by low-lying vegetation that’s been completely burned."

Van Berlo says this area is a safe zone for firefighters. Since it already burned it won’t light up again. Far off, firefighters decked in bright yellow are visible. They’re using tools like pulaski’s to dig a fire line. Van Berlo says it’s hard work.

"If you’re in it, those guys that are working in there, it’s difficult to see and it’s hard to see where you are, and to make sure that you’re still safe at all times."

Firefighter safety, along with public safety, rises to the top of priority list for these firefighters. Which is why, when the fire blew up, many of those firefighters headed to the safe zone.

"The area is very overgrown with gambrel oak, pinon and juniper trees and sagebrush, it’s a very dangerous area to be in because the forest is so overgrown," says Ron Leach. 

He's Carbondale's long-time Fire Cheif. His department was one of the first to respond to the fire when it was reported on Monday. He says the area likely caught fire because of a history of fire suppression and the ongoing drought. Still, he’s surprised the fire sparked so easily after recent rains.

"I’ll tell you, that fire burned yesterday (Monday) like there was gasoline on it, the trees looked green and the oak leaves are bright green, but they’re very dry and I was very surprised how fast that fire burned."

Fire officials say the probable cause of the fire is a lightning strike from a dry lightning storm on Sunday. Even though it grew yesterday, Leach says he’s confident firefighters will gain control of the fire over the next four days, or so.

"I’m really not too worried about this fire, I know we’re going to get a handle on this fire, this is certainly not the worst fire we’ve ever seen in the Roaring Fork Valley," he says.