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.
EAGLE — 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.
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.
Firefighters are using a variety of strategies in their mission to protect water and watersheds. Those include avoiding retardant drops within 300 feet of water. Helicopters also avoid scooping water from rivers, streams and lakes known to contain invasive species, like zebra mussels or water fleas. Crews are not building bulldozer lines on steep slopes or in identified debris-flow zones and municipal watersheds. Crews also protect plant ecology in different canyons by cleaning equipment before arriving on a scene and using a vehicle-cleaning station at the incident command post in Eagle to remove noxious weeds and other invasive species.
The National Interagency Fire Center’s Burned Area Emergency Response team — or BAER — typically arrives at a fire after it has been contained to address repair, rehabilitation and restoration of terrain damaged by flames and suppression work. At Grizzly Creek, which is 0% contained, the BAER team joined the initial firefighters in assessing potential impacts.
The BAER team is studying satellite imagery and fire growth to assess possible debris flows that could clog the Colorado River or block Interstate 70 in a rain storm after the fire. They study topography, geology and geography in burn zones — as well as data from other similar fires — to predict where debris may cause problems as rain scours burn zones.
They’ve been through the drill before. In July 1994, the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs burned nearly 2,000 acres. Two months later, a September rainstorm deposited more than 25 tons of scorched debris onto sections of Interstate 70 spanning more than 3 miles west of the city. And the fire on Storm King, which killed 14 firefighters — was in less steep terrain than the Grizzly Creek Fire.
The BAER team is working with Glenwood Springs to help the city predict potential impacts to its water supply as well as possible disruptions in the flow of the Colorado River, which eventually delivers water to residents in Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California.
Hydro-electric plant shut down by fire
The Colorado River Conservation District, which spans 15 counties on the Western Slope, is not working with firefighters but it is watching closely for how rainstorms in the fall might impact the watershed. The district has water in its own Wolford Mountain Reservoir upstream of the fire and leased water in Ruedi Reservoir downstream to use if debris causes problems with river health or the needs of its municipal users.
One issue the district is watching closely is the shutdown of Xcel Energy’s Shoshone hydro-electric power plant inside Glenwood Canyon. That historic power plant has lost transmission lines in the fire and will not quickly return to service after the fire is extinguished.
The Shoshone Generating Station has one of the largest and oldest water rights on the Colorado River, allowing it to divert 1,250 cubic-feet-per-second of Colorado River water for its non-consumptive use. That water is sucked from a dam in Glenwood Canyon near the Hanging Lake trailhead and funneled through 2 miles of diversion tunnels along the canyon’s northern wall into two penstocks tucked high in the cliffs of the canyon. The water tumbles down to the riverbed and turns two 7.5-megawatt turbines inside the 1909 power plant. Electricity from the plant is distributed across the Western Slope.
In the middle of the summer, pretty much the entire Colorado River is directed through those tunnels and deposited back into the river at the Shoshone boat ramp, fueling one of the state’s most vibrant rafting economies. (In 2019, more than 65,000 commercial rafters floated through Glenwood Canyon, spending more than $8.8 million.)
The Shoshone plant shut down in February after ice buildup damaged the tunnels. It took months for Xcel to repair equipment and the utility only resumed generating electricity on July 25. The plant shut down again shortly after the Grizzly Creek Fire exploded a few miles downstream.
An Xcel spokeswoman said in a statement that the company’s crews were working with firefighters to protect the historic power plant.
When the Shoshone Power Plant is offline, river flows can drop because the plant is not exercising its senior rights for water and users upstream can store and use their junior rights. But a 40-year agreement forged in 2016 between a host of federal, state and regional water managers — called the Shoshone Outage Protocol Agreement — keeps water in the river when the power plant is shut down for repair or maintenance. Without that agreement, the Colorado River would be ankle deep in Glenwood Canyon when the Shoshone plan is shut down as it is now.
Colorado River could have murky sediment for years