Little Sand Fire will provide some benefits

Blaze will burn off ladder fuels that have accumulated over the years

A pyrocumulus cloud forms from the Little Sand Fire. This photo was taken about 3 p.m. Wednesday on County Road 500, near Cool Water Ranch. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Bob Thompson

A pyrocumulus cloud forms from the Little Sand Fire. This photo was taken about 3 p.m. Wednesday on County Road 500, near Cool Water Ranch.

After two days of red-flag weather on Monday and Tuesday with gusting winds, the Little Sand Fire burning 13 miles northwest of Pagosa Springs had grown to 15,987 acres Wednesday night.

“The winds were more mild today,” Fire Information Officer Suzanne Flory said. “We still had the heat and the low humidity, but without the wind, things got a little easier.”

There are currently 200 personnel associated with fighting Little Sand, but that number will go down over the next few days as teams transition in and out.

“The heat, elevation, difficult terrain and all that gear makes this a tough job for firefighters,” Flory said.

The forecast for the next week is for temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s, with humidity in the 5 to 10 percent range, so there’s not much respite in sight.

Flory said the long-term outlook for the area is positive.

“This area hasn’t burned in a really long time,” she said. “This will be beneficial for the wildlife, soil and trees. Elk really do like to come into an area that has burned.”

The burning of so-called ladder fuels that have accumulated over the years may also eliminate the possibility of an intense fire such as the High Park Fire near Fort Collins that has burned 65,738-acres, Flory said.

On the Front Range, authorities grounded firefighting aircraft battling an out-of-control blaze scorching central Colorado on Wednesday, reacting with caution to witness reports of meteor sightings.

The temporary move came amid several reported sky sightings near the fire burning 1,100 acres, or nearly 2 square miles, west of Colorado Springs.

Chaffee County Sheriff W. Peter Palmer said his office received multiple reports, including one person who thought a meteorite might have landed in a wooded area north of Buena Vista. Palmer said officials could not confirm that report.

Meanwhile, the crew of a heavy air tanker spotted something while making a slurry run on the blaze, said Steve Segin, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

“They weren’t sure what it was,” Segin said, confirming the report of a possible meteor shower.

“They landed as they normally do to reload, and for safety reasons they grounded themselves until they could figure out what it was they saw,” he said.

The Colorado sightings corresponded with reports of a possible meteor filed by the crews of two commercial aircraft over Liberal, Kan., said meteorologist Scott Entrekin of the National Weather Service in Boulder.

Other sky sightings were reported in Raton, N.M., Entrekin said.

Ian Gregor, a spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration, said he had no such reports. He also said there were no reported disruptions to commercial airline traffic.

Fire officials ordered four single-engine aircraft to stay on the ground as a precaution. Two heavy air tankers also were affected. The planes soon resumed their attack on the fire, Entrekin said.

The groundings came as firefighters were taking advantage of a break in the heat to ramp up their attack against the High Park Fire burning on more than 100 square miles in the northern part of the state.

“Mother Nature has allowed us this window, and we have responded very aggressively,” said Brett Haberstick, a spokesman for fire managers.

After three consecutive days of gusty winds and temperatures in the 90s, temperatures Wednesday were about 20 degrees cooler.

“We’ve been patient through those red-flag conditions. Today, we’re going to be aggressive,” said Bill Hahnenberg, who is leading the fight against the fire west of Fort Collins.

Conditions were also better in central Colorado near Lake George, where the blaze is more than 20 percent contained, despite the meteor warning.

A fire that broke out Tuesday in northwestern Colorado spread to about 3 square miles, or 2,000 acres, forcing some evacuations in a subdivision, but residents were able to return that night. Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz said the fire is believed to have started from a cigarette thrown from a vehicle.

The largest Colorado blaze west of Fort Collins was 55 percent contained and has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9. Hahnenberg said it could be weeks or even months before it’s finally controlled.