JERRY MCBRIDE/Durango Herald
Firefighters made progress on the Weber Fire overnight, achieving 15 percent containment by Tuesday late morning on the 8,930-acre fire burning near Mancos.
Fire officials also have been working to protect communications infrastructure and archaeologically significant sites.
The number of fire personnel working the fire has increased to 400.
“Today, crews will continue building line, mopping up areas and hold the fire. The plan is to prepare lines in the day and conduct burnout operation at night when the relative humidity is higher,” stated InciWeb, a website that compiles official information on regional fires. “The fire is most active on the north and south ends.”
Fire investigators suspect a stray bullet may have caused the fire, but officials in charge of the investigation cast serious doubt on that conclusion.
The Weber Fire was a “direct result” of people target practicing on federal land, said Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Preparedness when he gave county commissioners an update on local fires on Monday.
However, TheCortez Journal reported that Connie Clementson, Bureau of Land Management’s agency administrator for the Weber Fire, and Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell, both agents in charge of the joint investigation into the cause of the blaze, reporting that Knowlton’s information was unsubstantiated.
“That is complete rumor,” Spruell said in a phone interview Monday evening. “It is a joint investigation with the (Bureau of Land Management) and the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, and we are still investigating.”
The Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment when The Durango Herald called for a response Monday evening.
A news release sent out Monday night said the cause of the fire remains under investigation, and it cautions that no official report has been released.
In a presentation to county commissioners, Knowlton said targets were put up, bullets passed through the targets and they ricocheted off rocks and landed in dry grass starting the fire.
“That’s an indication of how dry it is,” he said. “It doesn’t take much. It takes a very small ignition source, a very small spark to start a fire.”
After blazing through 1,300 acres on Sunday, officials said the Weber Fire was less active Monday thanks to calmer winds and the fire’s position on steeper terrain. That allowed crews to gain crucial ground in protecting houses and preventing the flames from crossing U.S. Highway 160.
The fire was 10 percent contained by Monday evening and had burned mostly northeast and south throughout the day.
Containment occurs when firefighters build a physical feature along the perimeter of the fire. This can include a hand-dug fire line, a bulldozer line or a back burn.
Crews expected to have bulldozed a 2½-mile fire line between the flames and U.S. Highway 160 by Monday evening, said Craig Beckner, the field operations section chief of the Type 2 team that took over fire operations Sunday.
On the southern edge of the fire, the team planned to let the flames burn down a steep hillside while crews create a barrier at the bottom of the hillside. The eastern edge of the fire burned to East Canyon Road and stopped, so crews are putting out hot spots on that edge, Beckner said. The fire is still about a mile southeast of Mancos; fire lines and roads make up the barrier beyond the edge of town.
On the north side, the fire has come within a half mile of U.S. Highway 160 near Mancos Hill, but the highway – as of Monday evening – has remained open. Keeping the fire south of the highway was a top priority for fire managers.
It is a key transportation corridor, and if the fire jumps the highway, it would have new fuel sources and more homes in its path, Knowlton said.
As the fire advances north, fire officials said it could produce enough thick smoke to obstruct visibility and possibly close the highway.
Officials are also concerned about the threat to communication sites that serve as a backbone for radio, phone and Internet services in the region. One radio tower at the top of Menefee Mountain is in the fire’s direct path.
No homes have been lost, but Mary Huels, a fire information officer, confirmed that one small outbuilding burned. Wildfire-protection plans and fuel-mitigation efforts by homeowners were crucial in saving some homes from the flames, Knowlton said as he showed commissioners pictures of the Elk Springs subdivision.
“It meant a difference to those firefighters, and those firefighters were able to save all the homes within that subdivision,” he said.
About 300 fire personnel were battling the blaze as of Monday evening, along with four helicopters, three single-engine air tankers and a guide plane. The only reported injury was a minor one to a firefighter.
The costs of the fire rose to $1.2 million, mostly to pay for air support.
Teams of volunteer firefighters from the Mancos Fire Protection District and other area fire departments have devoted their time to protecting residences.
The crews douse the areas around the houses with water to fend off flames, said Ed Martinez, assistant fire chief with the Mancos district.
“We’re taking care of our people,” Martinez said. The crews worked from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday and were planning a similar schedule Monday.
Fire officials are expecting weather to continue to be a factor. On Tuesday and Wednesday, there is a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms, according to the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
Mancos residents said they have been spending their days waiting and watching the plumes of smoke and flames rise on the slopes above them.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do,” said Sharon Bishop-Bott, as she stood outside her house on the south side of Highway 160 at the base of Menefee Mountain. “It’s just a lot of smoke and stress.”
Behind her, a spray-painted wooden sign read “Reddy to Go.”
“This whole area is worried because it’s tinder dry,” Bishop-Bott said. “This may not be the last one. That’s my concern.”