A grey mushroom cloud appears on the eastern horizon late Monday afternoon from my Rifle home. It is an all too familiar sight up here on the Western Slope – it is surely a sign of a raging wildfire.
I am not joking: Garfield County has “natural disasters du jour.”
As part of a county disaster response team, I better start packing an overnight suitcase. No doubt, the sheriff will be designating an evacuation center and I may be called in to help.Disaster Zone
In the area of Garfield County that includes Parachute to Glenwood Springs on I-70 down Highway 82 to Carbondale, wildfires have been way too prevalent. In 1994, 14 Hot Shots lost their lives battling the Storm King Fire. In 2002, many homeowners in West Glenwood lost their homes in the Coal Seam Fire. In between, well, I’ve lost count of wildfires here.
A few years ago, local law enforcement, fire departments, federal agencies, oil and gas companies, human service agencies and others formed a “Public Safety Commission” that is geared to respond as a coordinated group to disasters such as wildfires, an epidemic or a railroad chemical spill.
As a member, my part is to call up the VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters) group made of health, religious and human service agencies that assist the dislocated residents with an evacuation shelter, food and services such as mental health assistance, clothing and long-term housing. We work closely with the local Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers.
The Call for Help
Monday: Sure enough, at 7 p.m. I am notified by the GarCo sheriff’s department to help man the evacuation center set up at the middle school in New Castle.
The “New Castle Fire” is threatening homes east of that town and has already dislocated about 100 families from their homes. Canyon Creek Estates is one of those subdivisions in the county that was developed among pinon pines and scrub oak–a beautiful setting normally, but a deadly location in a wildfire.
My first call is to the local Red Cross. The supervisor brings in her volunteers and supply trucks. Salvation Army is put on call, too. Although there are some families evacuated from the fire, no one shows up at the shelter. This is typical. Most people have friends and family to go to. I am able to return home for the night at midnight, but the Red Cross volunteers stay.
Tuesday: Wildfires are not predictable, but usually at night they die down. Up here, the wind blows down river on the Colorado River in the morning and then shifts to the west about 1 p.m. That westerly wind is desert dry and can be very blustery. Tuesday morning the fire is restricted to about 300 acres in mostly forest service and open private land. By afternoon, it blows up to over 800 acres and within a half mile of homes.
The slurry bombers and helicopters carrying water bags are the “saviors” of the day preventing the fire from getting much worse. They can attack it in areas unreachable by truck. (See photos here.)
Another fire starts southwest of New Castle at a drilling rig, but luckily it is quickly put out. It does raise concern among the local fire departments. Units from local towns and counties are all at the New Castle fire, leaving their home areas vulnerable. The manpower is mostly volunteers; everyone is getting tired.
We are told to expect to feed over 200 firefighters for Tuesday’s evening meal. A newspaper account says 400 households are going to be affected and that the towns of New Castle and West Glenwood may also be evacuated. None of the information proves to be true. Communication will always be difficult because of human emotion, but it is better to prepare for the worst than be surprised and caught short-handed. You always want to err in being over-prepared.
I am fielding calls with offers of help while the Red Cross mans the shelter. A horse therapy non-profit will take in livestock; an animal shelter will house pets. Local restaurant owners are especially generous and treat the firefighters with their specialties.
Adding to this scenario is the Ride the Rockies event. Hundreds of cyclists arrive at their Rifle destination and are supposed to travel to Glenwood on Wednesday on roads that are right now closed due to the fire. From Rifle, the fire looks like a massive volcano explosion – no doubt, this event will be the highlight of this year’s ride.
Wednesday: The word this morning is the Feds are taking over the fire management. At the evac center, we assume it’s FEMA coming in to manage the shelters and meals. The professional firefighters like the Hot Shots will replace the local departments. After the Storm King and Coal Seam fires, we know our limits. The help is welcomed.
One of my duties today is to arrange for the local food bank to pick up about 50 pounds of donated BBQ ribs from former Bronco Vance Johnson’s Parachute restaurant – apparently the Feds have a different menu in mind for the firefighters. (Too bad for the firefighters, hurray for the homeless.)
The weather is predicted to remain hot and dry with afternoon winds expected to increase in strength today. Although the fire is about 15 percent contained, that scenario could quickly change for the worse. More homes are being evacuated as I write.
My thoughts are with them — I can’t imagine putting my family and life in a car, not knowing what will happen next.
Our VOAD group will be on standby – our services probably won’t be needed until if and (hopefully not) when homes are destroyed. When the fire is out, when the Feds and firefighters are gone, that is when our neighbors will need us the most for the long-term care assistance.
The first rumor for the day is that a water pipe broke in the hydro-electrical plant in Glenwood Canyon, possibly flooding and closing I-70 from the east and throwing Glenwood Springs in the dark. In reality, only the recreation path is affected.
The road that the Ride the Rockies bicyclists were to use has reopened- that will give them a front row seat view of the fire that now has grown to over 1,000 acres.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Garfield County emergency and human service agencies and residents, fortunately or not, have learned to live and react to wildfire disasters. We’ve had “the big one” twice in a decade. Drought and lightening have been the main culprits in our fire danger, although something as weird as the heat from an old abandoned burning mine started the Coal Seam Fire.
What we don’t have here are the thousands of acres of beetle-kill forests. When I drive to Denver, I am constantly amazed of the forest devastation seen along I-70 and other state highways in that region from Vail to Clear Creek, north and south.
Most of those communities haven’t gone through the experience of a wildfire and all the planning committees will never prepare one enough for the real thing. I fear for my brethren to my east even as the afternoon wind here makes an early arrival.
Photos of the New Castle Fire taken Tuesday afternoon by Leslie Robinson.