Crews at Colorado wildfire mark Storm King anniversary

July 7, 2018
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Tents are set up for the firefighters fighting a wildfire at the Crown Mountain Park Friday, July 6, 2018, in El Jebel, Colo. (Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times via AP)

EL JEBEL, Colo. (AP) — It is not lost on nearly 400 firefighters who have descended on the tiny Colorado mountain town of El Jebel that they are battling a blaze similar to the 1994 Storm King Fire outside of nearby Glenwood Springs that took the lives of 14 men and women.

Just before sunrise Friday, hundreds of firefighters crawled out of their tents at Crown Mountain Park for a briefing prior to heading into the field to battle the Lake Christine Fire above El Jebel, just 17 miles (27 kilometers) southwest of Glenwood Springs.

With the sun burning through the smoke-filled sky, the briefing began with a moment of silence to remember the Storm King victims who died on July 6, 1994. Several of the federal wildland firefighters overtaken by flames racing up a steep ridge were college-age students working with the prestigious Prineville, Oregon, Hotshots.

On Friday, Deputy Incident Commander Roger Staats reminded the crews that this region is not to be underestimated and to stay safe.

“This is a pretty hazardous area for firefighters,” he said, his voice trembling, holding back tears. “We have challenging terrain, so have your head on a swivel and look out for each other.”

Since the fire broke out Tuesday, hundreds of fire personnel from 20 states have joined local firefighters in battling a blaze that is now more than 8 square miles (22 square kilometers) and 3 percent contained. There could be more than 500 firefighters here by the end of the weekend, when officials hope to have one-third of the fire encircled.

Firefighters were warned that conditions and the fire itself are reminiscent of what happened on Storm King Mountain.

Outflow winds and lightning from a thunderstorm could increase the fire’s intensity and spread quickly, making an uphill run. There also was concern about higher elevation oak having the potential to burn again.

If anyone can handle that intensity, it is the Union Hotshots, a crew mostly based out of La Grande, Oregon. The elite team of 21 wildland firefighters — the most highly trained in the country — has been on the El Jebel scene since Wednesday.

They were greeted their first night with rare and challenging conditions when the winds and fire intensified, putting hundreds of homes in jeopardy.

Hotshot crew member Eric Jorgensen said his crew split into two groups and were stationed in two neighborhoods.

“The first day we had all of our rigs parked in people’s driveways,” he said. “We hiked up the hill where the fires were above and tried to pick up that direct edge and make sure structures were not involved.”

A second hotshot crew, from Prescott, Arizona, arrived Friday.

Jorgensen had the opportunity last year to hike Storm King Mountain, where several members of an Oregon based hotshot team died in the infamous fire.

“It’s sobering,” he said. “You can see from the terrain that they wanted to start punching line down the hill. They had a safety zone. They were looking at the right things and then the thunderstorm came through and ignited the fire under them and that is the same thing that is going on with this fire. It’s sitting. It’s waiting for the next thunderstorm to push it.”

Local firefighters were lauded by federal officials, who took over the fire on Thursday.

“You need to thank your local rural districts for the work they did,” Brink told the community meeting. “They saved a lot of houses. Very impressive. They did a hell of a job.”

As firefighters came back to camp Friday evening as the sun was setting, full of soot and dirt, they appeared positive about the direction of the fire.

Said one crew member checking out for the evening at the incident command center at the El Jebel Community Center: “At least it’s going away from town.”


Information from: The Aspen Times, http://www.aspentimes.com/

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