SOUTH CANYON — Atop a parched green ridgeline, a thirsty hotshot crew waited for an oncoming blaze with chainsaws, shovels and iron-like grit Tuesday as the 10,600-acre Coal Seam Fire closed out its fourth day of devastation.
The blaze, which forced thousands of evacuations and is estimated to have caused at least $4.5 million in damage to homes, rambled over a hillside blowing pillows of orange and black smoke into the air.
The Bitterroot Hotshot Crew stood idly along a strategic ridge where they were stationed to keep major portions of the fire from heading west back to Glenwood Springs.
"Right now we're shut down because we are out of water," said 23-year-old Harmony Hammonds, one member of a 20-person crew brought here from Darby, Mont. "If you don't have water, you can't work."
Half an hour later, a helicopter dropped a sling loaded with jugs each carrying 85 gallons of water to the firefighters, who went more than an hour without replenishment.
Fueled by the hydration, the crew sprung back into action as swollen flames burst over a small hill about 100 yards away. Trees crackled as the conflagration headed toward them.
"The wind has been really squirrelly. The fire is not being cooperative today," said hotshot crew superintendent Rory Laws, 37, between spits of tobacco. Gripping a clunky radio with a hand that was missing an index finger, he radioed for crews below to take up positions and let the blaze run its course as far as their fire line.
The scene was indicative of the other 600 or so firefighters working inside the wildfire's 41-mile perimeter to keep containment to 5 percent. The fire is still mostly out of control with its momentum gradually taking it north of Glenwood Springs.
As planned, teams such as the Bitterroot Hotshot Crew allowed vegetation to burn between the fire perimeter and the fire line built to defend the city, improving the security of that line.
"We want 500 to 600 acres to burn. That will make it a lot cleaner," said 28-year-old Dale Pfau, a hotshot member stationed on a ridge in South Canyon. "But if it gets past this line, it will absolutely rip."
The Coal Seam Fire has cost about $800,000 to fund firefighting personnel and resources brought in from across the West. At a news conference in Glenwood Springs, Gov. Bill Owens announced he set aside $10 million in the state's insurance fund that Garfield County and other fire-ravaged communities across the state can apply for.
"Our job is to go out and beat these fires and to count the dollars later," the governor said. He said the state and affected communities will suffer economic losses from stalled tourism in addition to the costs of fighting the fire.
He also defended a statement he made here on Sunday when he said that "all of Colorado is burning," which some in the tourism industry said is hurting business.
"That was a figurative statement and what I really meant to indicate is that all of Colorado is sharing in the pain of Glenwood and Durango and Grand Junction," he said. "It's clear to me we're facing a challenge we haven't seen in many, many years. These fires are going to be a factor we can't ignore and I've got to call it as I see it."
Garfield County Assessor Shannon Hurst estimated $4.5 million in damage to homes but that estimate was only preliminary. Some sections of neighborhoods ravaged by fire have yet to be included in her total.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh also toured the area Tuesday and promised that the Bush administration is setting aside money to pay three quarters of the overall cost of the Coal Seam Fire.
"We need to let the professionals get about the business of fighting the fire they know how to do so well as opposed to worrying about how we're going to pay for this," he said.
"We're in a drought situation not only here in Colorado but across the nation. Those that are of paramount importance to the nation are right here in Colorado. I had a conversation with the president this morning and he fully understands the dangers of fire," Allbaugh told a roomful of reporters.
The fire has slipped to the third priority in the state and the fourth in the nation, he said.
A Burn Area Emergency Rehabilitation team is working to assess ecological damage and is focusing its primary concern on erosion potential. It is also focusing attention on the Mitchell Creek fish hatchery where hundreds of thousands of trout destined for stocking in Colorado waterways survived the initial attack of the wildfire.
The hatchery was built in 1904 and is one of the few state hatcheries free of whirling disease, and also raises the rare greenback cutthroat trout.
A few hundred people remain evacuated from Mountain Springs Ranch, the upper part of Three Mile Creek and areas in South Canyon. Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri said he was pleased many residents heeded warnings to refrain from returning to their homes even though they are permitted to do so.
A shelter at Colorado Mountain College's Spring Valley Center will remain open until all affected residents are home and safe, he said. Three hot meals a day are available to anyone seeking assistance. The American Red Cross has served over 5,600 meals in the area since Saturday.
Electric power to evacuated areas was to be activated by today. Power at the Amy's Acres subdivision, however, won't be returned until Friday, officials said.
The fire has destroyed 40 structures, including 28 homes, and damaged three homes, according to the latest tally.
National Guardsmen sent to the area to maintain security were demobilizing because conditions continue to improve. Other law enforcement agencies also are being sent home.