Wildfires bring smoky skies to Four Corners

3,000 acres burn near Paradox; Pagosa Springs blaze grows a bit

Wildfires burning in southwestern Colorado and New Mexico combined to fill La Plata County skies with smoke Saturday and some evacuations were ordered.

Crews were battling a wildfire that has scorched more than 3,000 acres of rugged canyon land near Paradox; a fire near Pagosa Springs grew marginally; a brush fire in western La Plata County scorched about three acres; and crews struggled to contain an 82,000-acre fire burning in the Gila National Forest in southern New Mexico.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin said the Sunrise Mine Fire north of Paradox near the Colorado-Utah line started Friday afternoon and is burning in a remote area. It is not threatening any structures, and no injuries have been reported.

Shannon Borders, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, said sheriff’s deputies have evacuated the Buckeye Reservoir area, a popular recreation spot near the Utah border. Also evacuated were the Rock Creek and Sinbad Valley areas.

Heavy air tankers and thousands of firefighters are on standby across Colorado as fire managers keep a close watch on high winds and hot temperatures at the start of Memorial Day weekend. Segin said two heavy air tankers have been taken to Grand Junction, where the fire danger is highest.

In Archuleta County, a 20-person Wyoming hot-shot crew arrived Friday evening to battle the Little Sand Fire burning in an area 14 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs and was on scene Saturday until high winds forced all crews to pull back early in the day, said Pam Wilson, a spokeswoman for Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch. That included about 50 firefighters, one bulldozer and two helicopters, Wilson said.

Because of the high winds and heavy smoke in the area, Wilson was unable to give an estimate on how much the fire spread throughout the day, though she said “we know it’s growing.” The fire, which was started by lightning May 13, was measured at 490 acres Friday.

Officials held a meeting with 40 to 50 residents at the Sportsman’s Lodge in south Hinsdale County on Saturday to brief them on a possible evacuation, Wilson said. While evacuation does not seem likely at this time, the current wind factor could change things quickly, she said.

The wind caused other problems Saturday evening, knocking a power line over onto a tree on the Louis L’Amour Ranch west of the Dominguez-Escalante pull-off of U.S. Highway 160, a few miles east of Mancos Hill.

The Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District responded, with assistance from Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, Mancos Fire Protection District and the Forest Service, said Justin Wickes of the Fort Lewis Mesa district.

Wickes said the fire, which he estimated to be three acres, was 90 percent contained by about 5:45 p.m. and that no structures seemed to be in danger.

Crews remained at the scene to monitor a few remaining hot spots and wait for La Plata Electric Association crews to turn off the power line, Wickes said.

The heavy smoke in the region Saturday, though, was caused mainly by the Gila National Forest fire, Wilson said.

“Residents should expect similar conditions until the large fires in New Mexico and Arizona are controlled,” she said.

Fire officials in New Mexico said Saturday that the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in the Gila National Forest has shrunk slightly to 82,000 acres but is still zero percent contained because of weather conditions.

Officials ordered the evacuation of Mogollon, a privately owned ghost town, because of extreme wind around the southwestern New Mexico fire. Four helicopters and more than 500 firefighters from around the state were on hand to fight the blaze but still had to contend with “extreme conditions.”

Cities as far away as Albuquerque remained under a health alert until this afternoon because of smoke from the fire. State officials were warning residents during the Memorial Day weekend to limit outdoor activities, especially if smoke was visible.