DENVER – Heavy air tankers and thousands of firefighters were on standby Friday in Colorado as fire managers kept a close watch on high winds and hot temperatures at the start of the Memorial Day weekend.
Fire crews and land-management agencies were fully staffed across the state for the fire season, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin said.
The season has already begun in Southwest Colorado. The Little Sand Fire 14 miles northwest of Pagosa Springs was estimated at 423 acres Friday afternoon.
While the Forest Service hasn’t issued any restrictions yet, caution is the word everyone is using. High winds are expected over the weekend, a possible hazard for both firefighters and cyclists in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.
“We’re asking that everyone is really, really careful with their fires, whether they’re in a Forest Service campground or out in the forest,” Kelsey Smith, a visitor information specialist with the San Juan National Forest, said Friday afternoon. “People need to be extra cautious.”
Forty firefighters, including two Hot Shot crews and a wildland fire module, are already battling the Little Sand Fire. It was ignited by a lighting strike May 13. Two helicopters are on the scene doing water drops.
“The fire continues to burn slowly through dead and down material with occasional uphill runs and small pockets of white fir torching,” Forest Service Public Information Officer Brandy Richardson said Friday. Fire managers are expecting the fire to become more active over the next couple of days.
The fire prompted the closure of the Lower Weminuche Trail No. 594, Little Sand Trail No. 591 and Piedra River Trail No. 596 from the Piedra River Trailhead at its northern end downriver to Sand Creek. The Forest Service has also closed the entire area north and west of the Piedra Trail up to Mosca Road.
“They stress the importance of personal safety and awareness while recreating in the area,” Richardson said. “For your safety, and the safety of fire personnel, please abide by special closure orders.”
Richardson advised hikers and campers to be aware of their location and what road or trail they used to get there.
Partly cloudy skies and high winds will sweep across Southwest Colorado today, including over Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass. The National Weather Service has issued a high-wind warning, in effect from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The Weather Service is predicting sustained winds of 25 to 40 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph in valleys and 75 mph over exposed mountain ridges. Winds are expected to die down considerably by Sunday.
Gaige Sippy, director of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, said there are no plans to cancel or alter the event schedule.
“The winds tend to pick up more in the afternoon hours, and most riders arrive in Silverton by 12:30 or 1,” he said Friday.
As a precaution, event organizers will bring in additional buses for cyclists to use as shelter on the passes if conditions deteriorate. The strongest winds will be from the southwest.
“They could act as a tailwind. You never know, we might have some record times this year,” Sippy said.
Two heavy air tankers have been taken to Grand Junction in western Colorado, the area where the fire danger is highest in the state, Segin said.
“We’ve got the resources, we’ve got the firefighters. We’re ready,” Segin said.
Parts of Teller and Fremont counties in the central Colorado mountains were under a red-flag warning, meaning high winds, hot temperatures and low humidity could create dangerous fire conditions.
Most of eastern Colorado was under a high wind watch, with sustained winds of 25 to 35 mph and gusts up to 55 mph possible today.
Fire danger also was expected to be high in the southern Colorado foothills and the South Park area today, said Kyle Fredin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Conditions should improve by Sunday, with calmer winds and lower temperatures, he said.
Segin said visitors to Colorado’s parks should check with county sheriff’s offices about fire restrictions. He also stressed that campfires should be completely extinguished because that’s how many fires are started.
Colorado has already endured three big wildfires this year.
A fire that started May 14 scorched 12 square miles 20 miles northwest of Fort Collins, forcing the evacuation of about 80 homes.
Federal prosecutors charged 56-year-old James J. Weber of Fort Collins with starting the fire. He told investigators his camp stove started the fire and he was unable to stamp it out.
The U.S. Forest Service said it plans to pursue restitution from Weber. The cost of the fighting the fire was put at nearly $3 million.
In late March, the Lower North Fork Fire 25 miles southwest of Denver killed three people and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes. That fire was the result of a prescribed burn that grew out of control after it was set by the State Forest Service.
A wildfire caused by a downed power line in Colorado’s rural northeastern plains near the Colorado-Kansas-Nebraska border in mid-March forced the evacuation of 200 to 300 homes and injured three firefighters. The Yuma County fire, which burned 37 square miles, destroyed two homes and two farmsteads and was blamed for the loss of at least 40 to 50 cattle.
Herald staff writers Ann Butler and Luke Groskopf contributed to this report.