Church's Park Fire near Fraser too risky for anyone other than Mother Nature to put out

The Church's Park fire near Fraser has gone from 30 percent contained yesterday to 40 percent today, and the acreage remains at 530. But that doesn't mean it's on the cusp of a conclusion. Indeed, snuffing out every hot spot has been deemed more dangerous for firefighters than simply waiting for the weather to help their efforts rather than hindering them.

That's the word this morning from U.S. Forest Service public information officer John Bustos, who lists a couple of reasons for this approach.

"First of all, there's some very steep terrain," he says. "But there's also a safety issue from all the beetle-killed trees up there. Lodgepole pines are relatively shallow rooted anyway, and over time, the roots of ones the beetles have killed rot out. So there's a huge threat of them falling, or of branches falling off. And over 60 percent of this area is covered with dead trees killed by beetles."

Hence, Bustos continues, "we have to do a cost-benefit analysis. If we mop up the whole fire, the crews have to move deeper into this area and are exposed to a danger of falling trees for a larger amount of time. So our strategy is to limit the amount of time crews spend in areas would trees could fall down and kill them."

Moreover, the weather, which has exacerbated blazes like the Fourmile Canyon fire near Boulder and the Reservoir Road fire outside Loveland, is finally starting to cooperate. Today's forecast calls for cloudy conditions, relatively low winds and a bit of precipitation. But snow is just around the corner, and that should snuff the conflagration once and for all.

In the meantime, Bustos says, "there still might be some smoke from way inside the interior -- and we won't call the fire contained until we have a good solid line around it that will keep anything from escaping, including spots. And we're banging away really hard on the line, improving it and getting those hazardous trees pulled up and mopping up as far as we can safely go into the fire."

Investigators have no such safety fears, Bustos notes, because the fire has moved away from the location where the fire originated. For that reason, they've been able to take a close look at the area, and he expects them to supplement their initial theory that the blaze was human caused with some specifics fairly soon. And while the latest personnel update shows 243 firefighters engaged in the battle, Bustos says two crews were recently pulled out, and total containment is predicted for Saturday. "We're winding down," he says.

For more information on the fire, visit the Inciweb site -- and page down to see photos of the fire during its hottest stages.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts