Fire northwest of Pagosa grows to 420 acres

Red-flag warning in effect today and Saturday

The Little Sand Fire northwest of Pagosa Springs grew from 77 acres Wednesday to 420 acres by Thursday evening. More than 30 firefighters began working the fire Thursday, with 20 more planned to arrive today.

“In managing a fire, fire managers typically set up a series of ‘management action points,’” the Pagosa Ranger District said in a news release. “When the fire approaches one of these points, it triggers a preplanned action. Today, the fire hit one of those points – it reached Weminuche Creek.”

The Forest Service had been allowing the fire to burn naturally until it hit the creek.

“After careful analysis of the fire behavior and a review of the upcoming weather forecast, fire managers decided it is prudent to take a more direct approach to managing the fire,” the release said.

In addition to the firefighters, which include two hot-shot crews, a large helicopter arrived Thursday afternoon and began making water drops.

“It’s very tough terrain – very steep, very rugged,” spokeswoman Pam Wilson said. “But the growth of the fire isn’t hundreds or thousands of acres a day, like we see on the major fires.”

In addition to Lower Weminuche Trail No. 595 and Little Sand Trail No. 591, which the Forest Service closed Wednesday, the Piedra Trail from Bridge Campground at its northern terminus downriver to Sand Creek also has been closed.

To protect both the public and the firefighters, the Forest Service also instituted a closure for the area north and west of the Piedra Trail to Mosca Road.

A big concern is the red-flag warning the Grand Junction Office of the National Weather Service has declared, which will begin at 10 a.m. today and last until 9 p.m. Saturday. Some elevations may see gusts up to 60 mph, with a relative humidity forecast to be 7 to 12 percent over the next two days. Anything under 25 percent is considered low.

“So far, it’s been windier in Pagosa than up at the fire,” Wilson said. “It’s in a pocket, so we’re not getting super high winds. We’re hoping that will continue.”

Wilson said this doesn’t compare, at least yet, to the Missionary Ridge Fire from 2002 that burned more than 70,000 acres over a 39-day period.

“That one started at 2:30 p.m., and by 7 p.m. it was up to about 7,000 acres,” she said. “It was a lot hotter, and we didn’t even have a spring green-up that year.”

The weather service also issued a wind advisory for today and Saturday.

“Drivers heading out in high-profile vehicles like RVs and semitrucks should be very careful,” meteorologist Mike Chamberlain said, adding that all travelers should be aware that blowing dust may decrease visibility.

The weather service also recommends people with respiratory illnesses, heart disease, the elderly and children stay indoors and avoid heavy exertion outdoors because of the dust.

Sunday is predicted to be a cool 62 degrees with a “return to sunny tranquil weather,” the weather service said.