Breckenridge’s Peak 2 Fire: Nearly 500 homes remain under evacuation as forest smolders
On Wednesday afternoon, the small wildfire that broke out near Peak 2 wasn't much to write home about. Firefighters observing it from across the valley guessed that it might have just been a half-dozen trees burning.
But directly south of the innocent fire, the terrain was steep, dry and thick with fuel. All it needed was a boost to get up there, and it got one around 2 p.m., when a northerly wind lifted the fire up the Miner's Creek drainage.
There, the flames erupted into trees canopies, consuming both the living and the beetle-kill in 12-story flames and making a terrifying sprint up the mountainside.
The intensifying fire then began to heat the fuel above it, releasing combustible "gas bombs" that ignited in the air, stoking it along further. It moved so quickly that it sucked in huge amounts of air, drawing in the smaller fires ahead of it and adding to its power.
The beetle-kill trees didn't help, standing dead like matchsticks. Underneath their bare branches, duff and dead needles baked in direct sunlight, laying the foundation for a fire that could travel quickly on the ground and keep up with the flames racing above.
At its height, the Peak 2 Fire blazed up the mountainside at an estimated three-quarters of a mile per hour.
In wildfire parlance, this phenomenon is called a crown run. They are equal parts magnificent and horrifying, and Wednesday's fit the bill.
"That was pretty impressive," Ross Wilmore, a U.S. Forest Service fire management officer, said plainly.
That fearsome display, which began around 2 p.m., prompted the evacuation of more than 450 homes in the Peak 7 neighborhood within the next hour.
But while the wind gives, it also takes away. Later in the afternoon, a storm cell hovering above the Tenmile Range flipped the wind from northerly to southerly, folding the fire back onto itself and abruptly halting its run.
It laid down for the night and lay smoldering in place throughout the day Thursday, knocked down but not quite licked yet. By the evening, it had barely grown and was mapped at 83 acres. Officials estimated it to be 7 percent contained.
All day, roughly 100 firefighters from agencies as far-flung as Utah worked furiously to cut containment lines on the fire's northern rump, fanning out on both sides in a sort of pincer movement.
Access to the fire is a challenge for firefighters because of the steep terrain and long hike in. The high concentrations of beetle-kill, meanwhile, pose the risk of falling on crews as they work.
Throughout the day, three helicopters hammered at the northern flank with repeated water bucket dumps. The two air tankers dropping flame retardant Wednesday didn't return the next day because the topography near Miner's Creek proved tricky and tactical helicopter strikes seemed adequate to officials.
Better-than-expected cloud cover lasted well into the afternoon, keeping the humidity higher and temperatures cooler.
That kept the fire activity very low, although when temperatures rose later in the day helicopters had to snuff out spot fires that cropped up south of the fire.
"Everybody has a laser beam focus on everything outside of the fire zone," Wilmore said. "That's really where we're more vulnerable."
For at least the next 48 hours, the forecast calls for hot and dry weather, and another northerly wind could still wake the resting burn.
Thus, the Peak 7 evacuation remained in place Thursday and was set to continue Friday, along with pre-evacuation orders for Breckenridge and the Gold Hill, Silver Shekel and Farmer's Korner neighborhoods.
Highway 9 was periodically closed throughout the day for fire operations. The Peaks, Wheeler and Gold Hill trails were closed until further notice, along with Miner's Creek road and a section of the Colorado Trail.
On Thursday, Frisco, Silverthorne and Dillon announced new fire restrictions, joining the county government and U.S. Forest Service. Dillon also cancelled its July 8 fireworks show, and the 29th annual Triple Bypass bike ride from Evergreen to Avon, scheduled for the same day, was called off as well.
The sheriff's office gave no indication Thursday night as to when the evacuation would be lifted, citing the unpredictable nature of fires and its proximity — less than a mile-and-a-half — from the Peak 7 subdivision.
On Wednesday, around 50 people showed up at an evacuation center at Summit Middle School and three people ended up staying the night. Summit County Animal Control took in two dogs and a cat and said it was ready to accept more should evacuations continue.
The county health department said that smoke levels were elevated but manageable, although they might cause problems for more vulnerable people.
Wilmore said that the fire won't be completely extinguished until the area gets several inches of rain. That probably won't happen until monsoon season kicks into gear a week or two from now, he said.
In the meantime, and particularly right after the crown run, the site is a vision of hell. Firefighters haven't even ventured "into the black" yet, but the landscape there would look like 83-acre campfire, with embers and stumps smoldering and caustic fumes and ash lingering in the air.
Right now, it's not a place people could tolerate venturing into for very long, but waiting there are the clues to what caused the fire.
There are two main possibilities: human activity or lightning. Fire officials say the latter had been briefly striking the area in the days before the blaze took off.
The burned area includes a section of the Colorado Trail and is just north of the Peaks Trail, suggesting the possibility of a campfire.
Once the area is safe, the Sheriff's Office and the Forest Service will conduct a fire investigation.
For now, however, crews will continue to contain and mop up the fire, aggressively cutting containment lines from north to south and dropping water buckets wherever there are flare-ups.
With any luck, the fire is done running.