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Mancos fire could cross Hwy 160

DALE RODEBAUGH/Durango Herald - DURANGO - 06/23/12 - A turbo prop firefighting air tanker returns to the San Juan National Forest's Durango Air Tanker Base after delivering a load to the Weber Fire in Mancos Saturday morning.

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

MANCOS – For the second day, the Weber Fire spewed a huge plume of smoke and forced the evacuation of dozens of homes as it grew to 2,500 acres. Firefighters prepared for a multi-day battle.

Flames came within a quarter mile of the nearest home, but no structures had burned as of 2:30 p.m. Saturday, said Pam Wilson, fire information officer with the Interagency Fire Dispatch Center.

It was about a half mile from crossing U.S. Highway 160 near Mancos Hill at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Wilson said.

“There’s certainly a good possibility” the fire will cross the highway and disrupt transportation and movement of fire resources between Durango and Cortez, she said.

The town of Mancos was not immediately threatened.

Meanwhile, another fire started about 3:30 p.m. along U.S. Highway 550 south, a couple of miles north of the state line. Several homes were threatened and evacuations were anticipated. Air support was called to assist, said Dan Noonan, chief of the Durango Fire & Rescue Authority.

The Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office issued mandatory evacuations to 103 homes. Dozens more were notified they may need to evacuate. The Target Tree Campground along Highway 160 was closed as a precautionary measure.

“They’re definitely threatened,” Wilson said.

Weather forecasters predicted another hot day today with the possibility of thunderstorms, which could bring erratic wind gusts of 45 mph and dry lightning, which could start more fires in the days ahead.

“Obviously, we’re very concerned,” said Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management. “The conditions are extreme.”

The fire was reported about 4:30 p.m. Friday three miles south of Mancos. By noon Saturday it was estimated at 2,500 acres in size, buring through thick pine trees and oak brush.

It was one of four fires burning across Colorado, and air resources were stretched thin. At least two airtankers, three helicopters and a guide plane were working the Weber Fire. About 130 fire personnel were assigned to the blaze.

The fire was being managed by a Type III federal command team – the lowest priority. But a Type II team was en route from South Dakota and is expected to assume command Monday, Wilson said.

The fire started next to a road in Weber Canyon and moved northeast into East Canyon.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation.

Fire came closest to homes in the Elk Springs subdivision, on the eastern flank of the fire.

The fire was marching north toward Highway 160.

“We also started to see strong fire on the west side, near the point of origin,” Wilson said, but it was mostly a flare up.

Fire officials have been preparing for a bad fire season.

Durango has not received any measurable rain for six weeks – since May 12, when it rained 0.02, “which still is nothing,” said Tom Renwick, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

Temperatures also have been “well above average” since March, he said.

“It’s like a tinderbox. You get any sort of fire, and it just goes crazy,” Renwick said.

Conditions are similar to what they were 10 years ago when the Missionary Ridge Fire burned 46 homes over 39 days.

Residents in close proximity to the Weber Fire were “scared” but “understanding” of the situation, Wilson said.

“Our residents, in general, are very well-prepared for this to be a bad fire season, and I think they understand the limitations of fire resources.”

A huge plume of smoke rose thousands of feet into the sky above Mancos, high enough to create it’s own thunder cloud.

“It’s definitely creating its own weather,” Wilson said.

Durango residents woke up Saturday to a smoke-filled valley with a fine layer of ash covering their cars.

Thirty miles west in Mancos, the air was clear but the plume of smoke was prominent.

“Right now we actually have blue skies, and it’s not too smoky in Mancos,” Wilson said. “ But the plume is very obvious.”

shane@durangoherald.com

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