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May 2004

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Picnic Rock Fire burns 8,900 acres in county

By Cherry Sokoloski
North Forty News

The Picnic Rock Fire, Colorado's first major wildfire this year, proved to be steep and rocky but no picnic to fight.

The blaze started March 30, gobbling up 8,900 acres in a week and destroying two structures. Spreading rapidly through the drought-parched foothills north of Poudre Canyon, Picnic Rock Fire forced the evacuation of homes along County Road 29C, Bonner Peak Ranch and Cherokee Hills, with residents of Livermore and Hewlett Gulch put on notice at the height of the fire. Slurry drops helped to save structures, but it was Mother Nature who finally squelched the flames.

The fire was reported at 11:17 a.m. on March 30 by Poudre Canyon resident James "Tony" Sanchez, who was burning yard waste near his home without an open burning permit. Gusty winds picked up the fire and ran with it, eventually destroying one home and a garage on Obenchain Road and threatening dozens of others. The log home that burned was owned by Jim and Sabrina Grieser, who had the house up for sale; the garage belonged to Doug Burnett.

Acreage figures jumped by the hour as firefighters fought to save structures and keep themselves safe in dangerous firefighting conditions. By 9 p.m. on Tuesday, March 30, the fire had burned 350 to 400 acres; by that time Wednesday, the estimate was at 800 to 1000 acres, and by Thursday at 9 p.m., fire size had climbed to 3,500 acres with two structures lost that day. With extremely low humidity and warm temperatures, the fire did not "lie down" at night but kept on running. On Thursday, it jumped the North Fork of the Poudre River and burned into the Roosevelt National Forest. Friday at 8 a.m., it was estimated at 6,000 acres, and by that evening it was up to 8,000 acres.

Favorable weather began to move into the area on Friday, April 2, with higher humidity and cooler temperatures. Also, winds out of the southeast blew the fire away from Bonner Peak and toward Hewlett Gulch. Rain and snow fell over the weekend, slowing the fire's progress, and the Picnic Rock Fire was declared fully contained on Wednesday, April 7.

The total fire staff on Picnic Rock reached a maximum of 444 on April 4, 2004, according to Ron Lindroth of Poudre Fire Authority.

Fire arrives early

Don Griffith, head of emergency services for Larimer County, said a major challenge in fighting the Picnic Rock Fire was its arrival in March. "It's incredible to have a fire this size in March or April," he said.

Normally, seasonal fire crews and equipment aren't in place in northern Colorado until May, so Griffith had to scramble to find the necessary firefighters and air support. On March 30, the county had only one helicopter dropping water on the fire.

Griffith was able to get one heavy air tanker from Wyoming but had to wait for it, since the aircraft wasn't checked out and ready to go. "A second air tanker would have been extremely helpful," he said, since the lone tanker, refilling at Jeffco Airport in Denver, could make only eight or nine drops in a day.

Much of the fire area was not accessible to fire vehicles, Griffith noted, making it difficult to fight from the ground. At one point, firefighters were ferried across Seaman Reservoir to fight the blaze, saving them a long hike.

At the height of activity, there were seven fixed-wing aircraft and four helicopters working the Picnic Rock Fire.

Preliminary cost estimates for the fire are between $2.2 million and $2.3 million, Griffith said. Exactly how those bills will be paid, however, remains to be negotiated. Erik Nilsson, emergency management specialist for Larimer County, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay 75 percent of many of the costs, with the balance shared by the county and the state's emergency fire fund. Griffith gave a rough estimate of the county's share at less than $100,000.

Sanchez was charged with fourth-degree arson, a misdemeanor, on April 9, and he will make his first court appearance June 1. He could face three to 12 months in jail and be fined up to $1,000 if convicted.

Obenchain burns

Griffith said he's "always had a concern" about the Obenchain area, which has a narrow, heavily forested draw at the west end. "It could have been much, much worse," he said.

Doug Gibbs, a Bonner Peak resident and member of the Livermore Volunteer Fire Department, agreed. "We're just thankful it turned out as well as it did," he said. Gibbs was assigned to patrol for spot fires ahead of the main fire on March 31. He could see thick smoke billowing up to the south and realized the fire was gradually getting closer to Obenchain Road.

On April 1, fire reached the Obenchain, and many residents came close to losing their homes. At one point, the fire jumped from the south side of Obenchain Gulch to the north, and it eventually reached the south edge of Gibbs' 40 acres high on a ridge north of Obenchain Road.

For others on Obenchain Road, it came even closer. The fire burned in a horseshoe pattern around the home of John Tschirhart, who was grateful to firefighters for building two fire breaks on his property. Ironically, Tschirhart had wanted to put a metal roof on his home when it was built, but covenants at the time didn't allow it.

The Kaufman family nearly lost three homes. Harold and Eleanor Kaufman and their children Karin and Brian have adjoining 40-acre parcels. Trees and grass burned on each property close to the homes, but the structures weren't damaged. When the family evacuated, the draw was filled with thick, red smoke. "It was ghostly up here," Eleanor Kaufman said. Two weeks after the fire, she reported a half-inch of green grass coming out of the black, and she has already scattered wildflower seeds on the scorched earth near her home.

Griffith said he went into the Obenchain area after the structures burned and tried to determine why the Grieser home was lost when the fire skirted around so many others. "It's difficult to figure out why," he said, but his guess is that hot embers blew onto the deck or some other flammable object near the home, eventually igniting the home as well. The fire retardant dropped behind the home held the fire back at that location, he noted.

A Type II incident command team took over control of the Picnic Rock Fire on April 1. Agencies that helped fight the fire included Larimer County Emergency Services, Poudre Fire Authority, the U.S. Forest Service, Loveland Fire and Rescue, Colorado State Forest Service, Wellington and Glacier View fire protection districts and volunteer fire departments from Livermore, Rist Canyon and Glacier View.

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