From My Window: Fire and smoke season upon us; thankful for the firefighters

Sean McMahon, Editor
Sean McMahon, Editor
Well, it appears that we are into that ugly season again, when visibility out the window goes way down, the air doesn’t smell quite so good and for a lot of folks, the breathing gets a bit tougher.

We in Rio Blanco County knew about two weeks ago that it was fire season. We could see it in all directions.
We were told it came from the high number of large wildfires in California, Washington and Oregon. You can now add Idaho and Arizona and even some fires in Nevada and Wyoming to the list of states that are polluting our area.
But reality hit on Thursday last week, when it appears that a lightning strike started up what we’ll call the Strawberry Fire, located about 3.5 miles up County Road 7 to Strawberry and Wilson Creek.
I heard on the Meeker Fire and Rescue scanner when the first call went out that it wasn’t a big fire yet and that it started about 30 feet from a residence.
Immediately a fire call went out and it wasn’t much later you could hear the sirens heading out of town. A short time later, a second call to forces went out and it again wasn’t long before you heard the next fire engine headed out of town to the east. Then there was a third.
At this time, I figured I better get out there and see what was going on; it sounded pretty serious by now.
I hurried out to where the Colorado State Patrol officers had the road blocked, about seven-tenths of a mile from where the fire was burning on the property close to the homes of Onea Miller and Grant Rozier.
What you couldn’t tell from town was how hard the wind was blowing—and it was seriously blowing from west to east when I saw it. It appeared as though someone had just poured gasoline at the top of the hill near the homes and that the flame was following it at high speed down the hill to the east—propelled by the high winds.
I would have guessed from my vantage point that the fire had already covered maybe 30 acres.
Having seen quite a few units on the ground and the bucket-carrying, water-dropping helicopter on the scene, I figured they would have it under control pretty quickly and disaster would have been averted.
When I returned to the scene on Sunday, I had no trouble believing that the fire had incinerated a full 130 acres of private land and one-tenth of an acre of BLM land, as the reports had stated.
Due to the wonderful work of the respondents, the Miller and Rozier residences were saved. The same cannot be said for a lot of buildings, autos and machinery that were in the fire’s path on Rozier’s property.
One can’t help but hurt for the landowners caught up in an incident like that fire; there is just no way to replace everything that is lost in a fire like that—including just a little portion of one’s heart.
The best news is that no one was killed or seriously hurt, although two firefighters received minor injuries—one firefighter’s hand was cut and another was injured when a fire hose broke and the coupler hit the firefighter in the knee. Fortunately, both firefighters were able to continue with their duties.
When I spoke with Sheriff Anthony Mazzola on Thursday night, he was obviously tired and still a little bit rattled from what had happened. He called me at about 9 p.m. and said he had just gotten back from the scene.
“Sean, it was really crazy and scary,” he said. “The wind was blowing one direction, then it would blow another direction and the fire was moving in all directions at once.”
He went on for a few minutes describing what had happened and how much worse the fire could have gotten if it had crossed County Road 7.
The flames did run down the long hill of at least a couple tenths of a mile, but the personnel on hand were able to stop the fire literally at County Road 7, preventing ashes or flames or debris from crossing the pavement.
The solid black ground now runs along the pavement for about a quarter mile, and it is a miracle that with the wind blowing like it was, that it was contained at the highway.
Equipment and personnel responding to the blaze included two engines, four fire investigators, members of the Rio Blanco County Sheriff’s Office, the Bureau of Land Management, the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and, leading the charge, Meeker Fire and Rescue.
Four outbuildings/sheds were destroyed, the sheriff’s office reported.
On Friday, Meeker Fire and Rescue and the BLM continued to address hot spots and enforce the fireline, doing the mop-up work.
According to the Rio Blanco County Sheriff’s Office, the fire was determined to be lightning caused as a holdover from storms passing through the area earlier in the week.
In addition to the work done on this fire by the many agencies involved, we also owe a word of thanks and a bit of gratitude to the U.S. Forest Service personnel who have been averaging about two or three fires a day and up to many times that amount on some days over the past two weeks.
Their forces have been holding most of these lightning-caused fires to spread to less than a full acre. That’s good work with the number of fires there have been.
Let’s all be grateful for all of the firefighting forces who are keeping busy in Rio Blanco County and say our prayers that we have already seen the worst of what Mother Nature is going to deal us this summer.
As I write this on Monday, there is a forecast for some rain on Wednesday and today. Let’s hope that if that is true that the rain wins out over the lightning that often accompanies the precipitation.