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39 days of destruction

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire.

It’s Sunday, June 9, 2002. Durango is baking in 86-degree weather and 12 percent humidity.

The entire Four Corners is suffering from a prolonged drought. La Plata County has received only 1.31 inches of rain since the beginning of the year.

The Animas River shows the effects, flowing at 481 cubic feet per second and dropping daily. (It reached 172 cfs on June 30.)

At 2:30 p.m., a spark, the origin of which was never determined, falls on forest debris in a switchback on lower Missionary Ridge Road (County Road 253) north of Durango.

The inferno it touches off will burn for 39 days before weary firefighters finish building a line around the perimeter. The last spark would not be put out until September.

The cost of suppression alone was $40.8 million.

(As a coda to the disaster, on June 25, an electric-fence charger started a grass fire in the Falls Creek subdivision on the west side of the Animas Valley. The Valley Fire stopped traffic on U.S. Highway 550 for four hours. It came within two miles of the Missionary Ridge Fire. The Valley Fire burned 439 acres and destroyed 10 houses.)

Ron Klatt, a retired fire management officer for the Forest Service’s Columbine Ranger District, recalls how fast the Missionary Ridge Fire moved that first day.

“We had a crew of 50 from the Trimble work station there within minutes. But by the time they had their trucks in position, the fire had jumped the road (County Road 253) and was gone,” he said.

The fire was atypical in so many ways that it’s still used nationally as a case study for crown fires, Klatt said.

A crown fire moves rapidly through a forest canopy – tree top to tree top – instead of on the ground.

“It seemed that all conditions were lined up in favor of the fire,” Klatt said. “When we flew the perimeter of the fire at 9 p.m. that first day, it had covered 6,500 acres.”

Flames continued to hopscotch over 72,962 acres in all, destroying 46 houses and cabins. Fire commanders fought back using hand crews, earth-moving equipment and assaults by helicopters and fixed-wing tankers that dropped water and fire retardants.

Each day posed special challenges as conditions changed.

Mark Stiles, who had recently arrived as interim supervisor of the San Juan National Forest, remembers the fire’s behavior as extreme and bizarre.

“The fire would turn back on itself,” Stiles said. “It burned downhill at times and burned aspens, which, because of moisture content, usually aren’t readily flammable fuel.”

Observers said some flames reached 250 feet in length or height.

The day the fire started, hikers, bikers, picnickers and anglers on day trips into the backcountry who could become trapped by flames became a first concern.

Firefighters and law-enforcement officers intercepted them and directed them to Big Bear Meadow, where they were evacuated by helicopter. Their vehicles were left behind.

Overall, the intensity and duration of the fire, authorities say, can be attributed to drought conditions, high temperatures, low humidity and overgrown trees and underbrush – fuel with 4 percent moisture, the same as kiln-dried lumber.

Shifting winds and terrain with up to 50- and 60-degree slopes, which make them unapproachable by hand crews, lengthened the odds of quick containment. (A 50-degree slope rises 50 feet in elevation for every 100 linear feet.)

Wildland fires spread rapidly today because forests have become impenetrable thickets no longer managed by the naturally occurring wildfires of pioneer days.

The ferocity of the Missionary Ridge Fire created columns of smoke and ash, some a mile wide, that rose to 40,000 feet. Burning material was carried as high as 10,000 feet. The towering plumes, which marked the path of the fire for attentive spectators in the valley, could be an icon of the fire.

When columns cooled and collapsed, they spewed material ahead of the body of the fire to spark new blazes in timber that hadn’t seen wildfire in decades. Flames, with fresh fuel, would sometimes run for six or seven miles.

Prevailing southwest winds normally would push fire to the east. But on Missionary Ridge, winds would shift and swirl and turn flames in the opposite direction.

One errant column, pushed by strong easterly winds, collapsed down Stevens Canyon, jumping County Road 250 and threatening the Bar D Chuckwagon.

“The effort to save the Bar D was phenomenal because the fire was blowing over them, but they sprayed foam on everything,” said Mike Dunaway, then chief of Durango Fire & Rescue Authority. “I remember looking at my crews, volunteers who had stepped up along with the paid guys, and I saw how tired they all were.”

Compounding the pressure on firefighters was the wildland/urban interface – the individual houses or subdivisions snuggled in heavily forested areas – created by development beyond the suburbs. As the fire’s rate of spread threatened more people and property, suppression ultimately was turned over to a Type 1 team from the Interagency Incident Command System, which oversees all phases of wildland fire suppression.

A Type 1 team has 50 to 75 members, each with expertise in one of four broad areas – operations, planning, logistics and finance, said Pam Wilson, a Forest Service public information specialist and now director of Firewise of Southwest Colorado.

Fire management teams from Oregon, Florida, Montana and other parts of the country rotated in for two-week stints. About 2,300 firefighters eventually would see duty at the two area fires. The La Plata County Fairgrounds became command central for fire bosses. A tent city where catering companies fed firefighters sprang up and spilled onto Durango High School athletic fields.

The erratic path of the fire kept mountain residents on pins and needles.

Authorities kept them abreast of the advance of the fire. But a perceived momentary breather often could turn into a hasty evacuation. On one occasion, Aspen Trails residents were being told that it could be several days before the fire reached them when the meeting was interrupted and they got the command – get out now!

Jeri Trausch, a resident of the Tween Lakes subdivision – named for its position on the ridge between Lemon and Vallecito reservoirs – was one of the area residents pushed and pulled by the fire. When she was awakened one morning at 1 a.m. and told to evacuate, Trausch, her children, ages 12 and 6, and a friend grabbed a few possessions and led three horses down the mountain. At 4 a.m., they got the all-clear signal. But a week later, a firestorm swept over the ridge, torching Trausch’s cabin and most of her possessions, including papers, a computer, a potter’s wheel and a kiln.

The fire raced up Coon Creek drainage from its point of origin to the top of Missionary Ridge around 11,000 feet elevation. From there, flames pushed relentlessly eastward to the bottom of the Florida River drainage and then across the river between Lemon Dam and Helen’s Store to the Pine River basin below Vallecito Reservoir.

On June 17, the fire moved into bowl-shaped terrain on the west side of the reservoir just north of the dam.

“The wind was blowing 70 to 75 mph,” said Butch Knowlton, La Plata County director of emergency preparedness. “The low lip of the bowl was sucking in air like an open damper on a wood stove.”

As flames consumed the thick vegetation, the super-heated mass generated its own energy and began to spin. Wind shears became a vortex that escaped the bowl and spawned tornadoes.

“Birds dropped dead and fell from the sky,” said Knowlton, who watched from the reservoir dam.

The tornadoes ripped through the dried lake bed at the north end of the reservoir and overturned vehicles that owners had parked there believing they were safe. Flying debris broke vehicle windows. Sparks set upholstery on fire.

Rain, higher humidity and diminishing wind finally helped corral the fire. In the end, the fire was not an anomaly, but one of thousands across the country that summer. The National Interagency Fire Center reported that 88,458 wildfires burned 7 million acres in the 2002 fire season.

“Ours was an area that hadn’t seen regular fire in 100 years,” Klatt said of La Plata County. “When I think back, the Missionary Ridge Fire was so atypical that it seems like a dream.”

daler@durangoherald.com

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