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Winter storm knocks out wildfire west of Silverton

Popular Ice Lakes trail ‘heavily damaged,’ closed indefinitely
A winter storm this week is expected to knock out a late-season wildfire west of Silverton.

A winter storm has put the final nail in the coffin for the Ice Fire burning west of Silverton in the San Juan Mountains, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service announced Monday the Ice Fire was at 90% containment with a total of about 600 acres burned near the popular Ice Lakes trailhead, about 5 miles from the small mountain town.

Management of the Ice Fire was transferred to the local Forest Service’s Columbine Ranger District, and no further updates on the blaze are expected unless significant developments occur.

The Ice Fire broke out around 1:30 p.m. Oct. 19, about a quarter mile up the Ice Lakes trailhead, and quickly burned a couple hundred acres, prompting a robust emergency response.

At the peak of firefighting efforts, about 100 personnel were assigned to the fire, as well as multiple aircraft. No evacuation orders were put in place, but the town of Silverton was alerted to be ready to leave should the fire threaten town.

Immediately after the blaze broke out, South Mineral Road (Forest Service Road 595), a popular area for camping, was evacuated and closed. A total of 23 hikers and three dogs were trapped above the fire and required rescue by helicopter.

But despite dry and windy conditions last week, the Ice Fire never exploded into a large, catastrophic wildfire like other blazes have done throughout Colorado, especially in the northern part of the state.

Andy Lyon, a spokesman for the Forest Service, attributed the slow growth of the Ice Fire to humidity and cold temperatures at night, which caused the fire to not be as active during the day.

Then, a winter storm that moved into the region Sunday, which is expected to drop more than a foot of snow in the high country over the next few days, put the final touches on firefighting efforts.

“With hard work from firefighters and now help from nature ... the probability of any future activity is low,” the Forest Service said in a statement. “The area has gone from extreme fire danger to winter weather warnings in 24 hours.”

The Ice Lakes Trail is one of the most popular and heavily used in Southwest Colorado, which starts at an elevation of 9,840 feet and climbs a couple thousand feet to two stunning, turquoise alpine lakes: Ice Lake and Island Lake.

The alpine lakes are commonly featured on best hike lists in Colorado and shared on social media. On any given day in the summer, hundreds of people make the trek to the lakes, leading to significant resource damage in recent years.

The Forest Service said Ice and Island lakes, which are above tree line, were not impacted by the fire, but the trail was “heavily damaged” and will be closed for “quite some time.”

The Forest Service did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.

What made the Ice Fire so unusual is how late in the season it started, and how high in elevation it burned.

Esther Godson, a spokeswoman with the Forest Service, said previously the Ice Fire burned just below 10,000 feet in elevation near the bottom of South Mineral Creek and up to treeline at about 11,500 feet.

The blaze broke out at a time when fire season, historically, should be over. But extreme drought this year has caused the fire season to extend into late fall, Godson said.

“Drought (was) the main factor contributing to fire behavior on the Ice Fire,” she said.

The Ice Fire was also the first blaze to potentially threaten the town of Silverton since the Lime Creek Burn in 1879, which scorched 26,000 acres of high elevation forests south of town near Molas Pass.

“This is the first time in many, many years that Silverton has been put on some type of evacuation alert,” Jim Donovan, director of the San Juan County Office of Emergency management, said in a statement.

Now, wildfire specialists and biologists are wondering whether fires in such high terrain, at such late points in the season, is the new normal.

“I hope the community understands it doesn’t take much for this to happen,” Gilbert Archuleta, chief of the Silverton-San Juan County Fire and Rescue Authority, said in a statement.

The cause of the Ice Fire remains unknown and under investigation, according to the Forest Service.


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