Mother Nature giveth, and taketh away. Driven by fierce winds, the Cow Creek wildfire swiftly expanded from 25 acres, when it was discovered Oct. 16 in the Uncompahgre Wilderness nine miles south of Ridgway, to 785 acres by Friday night.
Then on Saturday, four inches of snow arrived. It was more than anyone had been expecting, and as a meterologist from the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Blue firefighting team explained in a community meeting Tuesday night, that moisture — plus a lack of wind and the cooler temperatures that have followed — has helped firefighters to keep the blaze contained ever since.
“Today, we’re at 800 acres and holding,” Ouray County Commissioner Ben Tisdel summed up. Had there been more wind, or less moisture, Tisdel noted, the outcome could have been very different. “We’re very grateful” for the hard work of the firefighters, he said, “which have left us as safe” as possible, and to a big assist from the weather.
Which does not mean the danger is over. On Wednesday morning, according to an update from the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, the fire remained “0 percent” contained. “Getting tied up in the percentage of containment is probably a misnomer,” said Dylan Peters, a public information specialist for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) national forests. “We look at that number” — and give it more emphasis — “earlier in the season,” when weather is hotter and drier and fires are more likely to spiral out of control.
“At this point, moderating the fire’s behavior, and making sure it doesn’t spread and threaten private property or homes” is the highest priority, according to Peters.
At the meeting Tuesday, fire personnel outlined how they have “indirectly” contained the fire, using roads, gullies, creek beds and natural features to keep it from spreading. The fire has been divided into sections, and the southernmost section, labeled Division Charlie, up Cow Creek Road, is where crews have been concentrating, removing dead “snags” (fallen trees) and other fuels that would allow the fire to grow.
There are still three inches of snow on the ground around the fire’s northern perimeter, which makes firefighters optimistic that that portion of the fire will remain contained.
“I’m fairly confident that over the next three to five days, the amount of snow to the north” will keep the fire from spreading, operations sections Chief Paul Hohn said in an update on the fire Wednesday (daily updates are available on the GMUG’s fire information page on Facebook).
“This is a full-suppression fire,” Peters noted, but there are two factors that make firefighting especially tricky in this place. For starters, it is located in a federally protected wilderness area, where “we would need special exemptions” to bring in off-road equipment “if we determine that public safety” or property is at great risk. The other difficulty is that the fire is in extremely steep terrain, which is dangerous to navigate; the risk to firefighters from slipping on burning debris (or having it cascade down upon them) as they work their way up steep slopes to put in “hand lines” would be unacceptably high. “As it is, direct access to this fire is difficult,” Peters said. “We can use existing pre-existing roads and trails” to reach it, “and are reinforcing those.”
And so, it is back to Mother Nature. Ridgway typically receives its first snow on Oct. 30, the team meteorologist pointed out Tuesday, and the usual amount is four inches, “so you get a lot,” and there would be still more snow at higher altitudes, where the fire is burning. But little moisture is predicted over the next two weeks, or (for that matter) even the next few days. “A skiff of snow,” and cooler temperatures, will help contain the flames. Warmer weather, and wind, will help them to spread. Before the first big snow arrives, the Cow Creek Fire may not grow any bigger, but neither will it be suppressed entirely. “Yesterday, fire behavior near Courthouse Mountain was unresponsive to clear skies and increased sun exposure, with smoldering and creeping continuing in the drainages near Cow Creek,” a news release said Wednesday. “Fire behavior will follow the weather patterns with increased activity when clear and warm, (and) lessened activity when cold and cloudy.”
For now, “fighting” the Cow Creek Fire involves two things: establishing additional control lines and waiting it out.