The Grizzly Creek fire is threatening the Colorado River and water for the entire West |

The Grizzly Creek fire is threatening the Colorado River and water for the entire West

As the Grizzly Creek Fire rips through Glenwood Canyon, it endangers vital infrastructure for millions of westerners. Sediment and debris could foul the Colorado River for years to come.

Jason Blevins and Jennifer Brown / Colorado Sun
The Grizzly Creek fire burns in rugged terrain just north of Glenwood Springs Friday August 14, 2020.
William Woody / Special to Colorado Sun

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams was driving home from vacation on Aug. 10 when he glanced up and saw the plumes billowing out of Glenwood Canyon and knew a historic wildfire was coming.

It wasn’t just that the flames licking up the craggy canyon walls were threatening homes, a railroad, a major highway and a power plant. It’s that the now 25,000-acre-and-growing Grizzly Creek Fire was burning in the municipal water supply of Glenwood Springs and in the headwaters of the Colorado River watershed, which eventually slakes more than 40 million downstream users. 

“I knew we were in trouble,” Fitzwilliams said.

In many ways, the Grizzly Creek Fire — the largest in the history of the White River National Forest — is a public works fire, threatening vital infrastructure for millions of westerners, all wedged into a tiny sliver of steep canyon that pretty much prevents on-the-ground firefighting. 

“That watershed and municipal water supply, after people and their homes, has been one of our highest priorities in this fire,” Fitzwilliams said. “I have not been involved in a fire in such a relatively small area where there are so many things going on.”

The Grizzly Creek Fire’s proximity to homes in a challenging and critical watershed is only part of the reason it ranks as the nation’s top firefighting priority.  

“In addition, fire behavior, fuel conditions, critical fire weather forecasts, potential for extreme fire behavior, and resistance to control are also factors” for federal fire agencies when ranking priorities for national firefighting assets like air tankers, helicopters, hot shot crews and smokejumpers, said incident command spokesman Mike Ferris.

The Grizzly Creek wildfire is unique because ground crews are not fighting flames in the precipitous Glenwood Canyon. They can’t even reach them. Firefighters can’t haul their hand tools up the steep canyon walls. They can’t venture into narrow side drainages where flames could trap them. That means this is an airshow, with both air tanker jets and helicopters dumping fire retardant and water to help ground crews above the canyon — along Coffee Pot Road and above the No Name drainage — build lines to corral the fire. 

Firefighters on the Grizzly Creek fire are working toward total suppression, Ferris said, just as they are at the Pine Gulch, Cameron Peak and Williams Fork fires. 

To read the rest of the Colorado Sun article, click here.

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