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Fire and Water

Locations: News Published

By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff Writer

There were several plumes of smoke in the air on April 7 when Brad Palmer, caretaker for the HHH property just east of Carbondale, set to work burning a ditch he’d cleaned out many times before.

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He could have moved the bales of hay in the back of the nearby barn, or started with the tall grass on the outside of the barn’s wide slats to create a firebreak before things really got going. He could have scooted the tank of water a little further into the back of his pickup or called one of his neighbors with a full sprayer setup to help.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” he said later. “There’s probably 10 ways I could have done it different … I was just too complacent.”

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Not far away, the Nieslanik family had a whole crew burning and dousing along Catherine Store Road, clearing old leaves and undergrowth in the short period when the snow has melted but the green-up hasn’t yet clogged the irrigation ditches. Sopris Sun Photographer Jane Bachrach stopped to snap a few photos, then noticed Palmer’s plume and went to check it out. She chatted with Palmer, a friend of hers, and just before heading out she captured what turned out to be the last photo of the old barn as a reflection in his sunglasses.

Shortly thereafter, things got out of hand. The flames spread to the tall grass, then through the slats to the hay inside the barn. Palmer tried backing the truck in, in an effort to douse the fire, but the tank tumbled out off the tailgate and spilled uselessly on the ground. After a few moments of trying to rake out the smoldering hay, he had to acknowledge it was too late.

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“All of the sudden I realized I had to get out,” he said. “There was no way I was going to be able to put the fire out.”

He called the fire department, then 911 at 11:48 a.m., but by the time crews showed up the barn was fully engulfed. The roof collapsed not long after, leaving a pile of old timber crackling in the center and a pool of molten rubber in place of tires on a horse trailer. No people or livestock were in the building at the time, so the fire department’s main concern was containment.

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“Public safety was our first concern,” said Incident Commander Mike Wagner of The Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District. “We responded quickly. I feel like we did a great job of suppressing the flames and keeping it from spreading.”

Carbondale Police Department, the Basalt Fire District and Garfield County Sheriff’s Department also responded to the incident.

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The fire didn’t touch any of the nearby homes, and insurance is anticipated to cover most of the damage, so Palmer hasn’t caught much grief from the property owner and neighbors.

“Everyone has been very supportive,” he said. “For me, the only solace is that nobody got hurt.”

He’ll be burning again next season, though he certainly won’t underestimate fire in the future, and plans to bring in plenty of help.

The folks at Carbondale Fire also have plenty of good advice for folks planning their own controlled burns, and will share it for free if you give them a call at 963-2491 before you start (if something’s already on fire, just stick with 911).

First, though, Chief Ron Leach wanted something on the record.

“The ranchers are not the problem,” he said. “They have to burn to irrigate their fields to make a living, and they’ve been doing it all their lives. Fire is a tool to them and they know how to use it.”

It’s folks with relative inexperience that scare Leach, particularly when about half of them don’t bother to call in ahead of time. If they did, he’d be able to give them a weather report for the day, and would tell them to have it done by 11 a.m. when the wind almost invariably kicks up. In the choice between a smokey morning and a fiery afternoon, he knows where he stands.

“Fire safety wise, it’s best to burn in the morning; air quality wise it’s best to burn in the afternoon, so it’s a conflict,” he acknowledged.

Deputy Chief Rob Goodwin, for his part, thinks it’s all about good judgement and not biting off more than you can chew.

“Smaller bites, maybe,” he said. “You don’t have to burn it all in one day.”

He echoed Palmer’s recommendation for enough people to control the fire, and added that anything beyond the reach of a garden hose requires a water supply with a substantial tank and a sprayer. A fire extinguisher isn’t a bad idea, either.

“When you put a fire on the ground you take a lot of responsibility on yourself,” he said. “It can get out of control really easily.”

As for what some warm weather and one out of control burn (in addition to a couple other barn fires downvalley) say about the fire danger all summer long, it’s too early to tell.

“I quit trying to predict fire seasons long ago,” he said.

Published in The Sopris Sun on April 13, 2017
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