ISAIAH BRANCH-BOYLE/Durango Herald
ISAIAH BRANCH-BOYLE/Durango Herald
MANCOS – The Weber Fire grew overnight to 9,155 acres. The growth brought it closer to U.S. Highway 160, but it remained within established containment lines Wednesday morning.
“Firefighter are gradually bringing fire down to established containment lines,” a news release from the federal incident management team fighting the fire said. “Crews continue to work conducting burnout operations and constructing and strengthening fire line.”
The fire is now 30 percent contained – meaning firefighters had created a secure line around that percentage of the perimeter.
Highway 41 has been reopened, but evacuated residents still need an escort into their homes, according to the release.
No structures have been destroyed but about 120 people remain evacuated.
Steep terrain and the risk of rolling embers made direct firefighting tactics unsafe in some areas.
“Rough terrain, unpredictable weather, and heavy, dry fuels have made this a hard fought battle.” Incident Commander Joe Lowe was quoted saying in the release.
The release cautioned that “residents and visitors should expect to see and smell smoke over the next several days.”
Fire officials on Tuesday said they expected to spend a couple more days building containment lines and several days after that on “mop up” work. Presently, about 500 people are working the fire.
Deputy incident commander Jay Esperance warned residents not to get a “false sense of security.”
“We can’t let our guard down,” he said Tuesday morning at a community briefing. “We’ve got a long road to go.”
No homes have been lost.
They have been working to protect communication towers on the north end of the fire that serve as a backbone to the entire region.
One firefighter suffered a cut shin in a fall Monday night. He was treated and released.
The fire started Friday afternoon along a road in Weber Canyon.
Federal land officials said the official cause remains under investigation.
But Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, said the fire was started by people target practicing on federal land. He made the statement Monday during a special meeting to brief county commissioners on area fires.
A bullet passed through a target, ricocheted off a rock and landed in dry vegetation, starting the fire, he said.
Federal land officials did not dispute the explanation, but they insisted it is an ongoing investigation.
“I can’t say,” said Connie Clementson, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management. “The fire is still under investigation. We absolutely know it’s human-caused.”
Weather forecasters predict isolated and scattered thundershowers today and Thursday in the region with a drying trend for the remainder of the week. The best chance for rain showers will be north of the fire in the San Juan Mountains, said Travis Booth, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.
“Thankfully, we don’t anticipate any of the really strong winds,” he said.
However, isolated storms could produce strong gusts.
Fire crews planned to continue containment efforts today and Thursday, Esperance said. They will use hand tools and bulldozers to dig a fire line. They clear vegetation and conduct burnouts – or back burns – to eliminate fuels, he said.
Resident can expect to see heavy smoke during the next several days as the burnouts operations are done.
After the fire is contained, firefighters will begin mop-up efforts, which involve extinguishing all hot spots around the perimeter.
Firefighters will use their hands to feel for heat on the ground, Esperance said. They will use hand tools to expose embers and douse them with water, he said.
“It’s dirty, but it’s extremely critical,” he said.
After mop-up, firefighters will do rehab work, which is repairing fences, culverts or anything else damaged as a result of fighting the blaze, he said.
Mancos resident Julie Desm said she is feeling better about the fire.
“It will be another couple of weeks, and even those couple of weeks won’t be anything to worry about,” she said. “Except for those guys working it.”