"There's an outside possibility it'll be going all summer," the Red Creek Fire Public Information Officer Lew French said. "I expect the monsoon will dump enough water on it to put it out."
The dispatch center a cooperative group comprised of members of the Bureau of Land Management, the United States and Colorado State Forest Service, and the National Parks Service has taken no direct action to quell the fire, which is burning on slopes of 100-145 degrees, because of the difficulty, danger and expense of fighting a fire on such steep terrain.
"It would be irresponsible for us to go in there on something that isn't hurting anything," Zone Fire Management Officer for the Ouray and Norwood Zones Todd Richardson said. Taking hard action to quench the fire, he said, would raise the price of the effort to perhaps $4 million from about $0.25 million, and could put firefighters in danger, as well.
No one has been hurt and no private property destroyed or threatened by the fire. The fire's fuel is mostly old-growth spruce and fir, as well as some aspen trees.
Richardson said the interagency officers were practicing the "appropriate response" to the fire. "Historically, because of some policies and perceptions, all fire was viewed as bad. We'd jump on it immediately and throw millions of dollars at it," he said. "Now we're realizing that the elimination of fire is not that good for the forest."
An area of forest must be "very degraded" filled with dead tress and braches, old pine needles, fallen leaves and underbrush before a fire like this can start, the officials said. French estimates that this area has not had a fire in between 100 and 200 years.
"Mother Nature was able to take 350 acres and clean them up and put them back into the cycle," Richardson said.
Many scientists and forest workers say that wildfires of this type can be beneficial to the burned area's ecosystem, since they can create larger habitats for elk and similar animals by thinning areas of forest. They also reduce pest populations and release nutrients in forest litter that would otherwise decompose very slowly. Some trees, especially conifers, even require extreme heat for their pinecones to germinate.
Likewise, said Richardson, the longer you put off a fire in an area of forest, the more catastrophic it will be when it does happen.
"It takes a lot of reeducation. Smokey has been telling people for ninety years to put fires out. Now he's saying, 'You're letting my forests get dirty,'" he added, referring to the mascot of the United States Forest Service, Smokey the Bear, who educates Americans about fire safety most famously with his motto, "Only you can prevent wildfires" (which in April, 2001, was changed from "Only you can prevent forest fires").
Like most wildfires, the Red Creek Fire began with a lightning bolt, which ignited somewhere in the drought-dried forest. It quickly grew to 50 acres, and by Saturday, July 1, covered 250 acres of forest. On Tuesday, officials remapped the area of the fire, and discovered it had grown to 350 acres.
Right now, the fire is creeping along the ground, said French. "It smolders along until it finds some dead stuff and then it flares up into flames."
Officials have closed the Stealy Trail, Cow Creek Road and parts of Courthouse Mountain Trail though not the popular climbing areas. Richardson said, "It's not a real big close it covers about a five square mile area." Campfires in the vicinity continue to be allowed only in designated campgrounds.
The interagency group has identified 2,200 acres on which the fire could safely burn in the area, he said. To reach areas where it could endanger people or property, he added, "The fire would have to drive downhill" which fires rarely do "or move against normal wind patterns. It would take a rare event to get to those places."
Earlier in the week, the interagency dispatch center had 30 personnel assigned to the fire. It scaled down the effort Wednesday to several aerial and ground lookouts and information officers to answer the public's questions. In the unlikely event that the fire does begin to menace people or property, the agencies will actively fight it. On Tuesday, a 20-person crew prepared water sources for fire engines and helicopters, should they become necessary.
Several dozen much smaller fires covering just a few acres each are also burning around the state, though many are in the process of burning out or being quenched.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, areas of northwestern Colorado were at high or very high risk of fire Thursday, while the rest of the state was at low to moderate.