Chris Carlson/Associated Press
Chris Carlson/Associated Press
COLORADO SPRINGS – Making steady progress Saturday against the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, crews kept a wary eye on weather that was getting warmer and drier as National Guard troops were deployed to help local police get things back to normal.
“The weather is making progress in a bad direction. Hotter, drier, with a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon. Winds will shift from one direction to another,” said Incident Commander Rich Harvey.
The 26-square-mile Waldo Canyon Fire was 45 percent contained, and the cost of fighting the blaze has hit $8.8 million. It was one of many burning across the West, including eight in Utah and a fast-growing blaze in Montana that forced residents in several small communities to leave.
In Southwest Colorado, crews in Mancos continued burnout operations on the Weber Fire on Saturday, after successfully completing similar operations on about 500 acres Friday.
“We have completed a great deal of work, and our job now is to finish strong and get residents back home safely,” Team C Incident Commander Joe Lowe said in a news release Saturday morning.
Firefighters used an aerial-ignition technique Saturday to burn fuels between the indirect containment lines and the active northeast edge of the fire, the release said. The aerial-ignition technique involves dropping fire-starting spheres that are about the size of pingpong balls from helicopters so that the fire moves slowly downhill into drainages.
While the endpoint of Saturday’s burnout operations neared several homes, John Helmich, an information officer with Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team C, said the burn was “absolutely our doing and absolutely in our control.”
Fire trucks and personnel were on scene to protect the nearby structures, Helmich said.
Durango continued to see smoke from the burnout operations Saturday, and fire managers warned motorists of low-visibility in some areas.
In addition to Saturday’s burnout operations, crews worked to strengthen containment lines and mop up along the rest of the fire perimeter.
The fire, which currently covers 9,681 acres, was 65 percent contained Saturday morning.
A juvenile is suspected of starting the fire, but authorities have not identified a cause.
The 90-acre Lightner Creek Fire, burning 3½ miles west of Durango, remained 75 percent contained Saturday afternoon. The lightening-caused fire did not grow Friday night, said Pam Wilson, spokeswoman for the Durango Interagency Dispatch Center.
A Type 4 incident commander took over the fire Saturday, with a 20-person crew, one safety officer, and one tactical water tender on scene working to strengthen the containment line and extinguishing hot spots.
According to InciWeb.org, a website where fire information officers are posting updates, the Little Sand Fire near Pagosa Springs spans 23,575 acres and is 34 percent contained. Lightening strikes Thursday spawned two new fires Friday, which crews from the Little Sand Fire responded to. Both fires were contained Friday.
The Escarpment Fire, burning on Ute Mountain Ute land northeast of Mesa Verde National Park, was listed at 50 percent contained at 6 p.m. Saturday. The fire was at 50 acres in size Saturday afternoon, 30 firefighters working on containment and mop up.
Back near Colorado Springs, more than 1,200 personnel and six helicopters were fighting the Waldo Canyon Fire, and authorities said they were confident they’d built good fire lines in many areas to stop flames from spreading.
“Today is going to be our test day,” said Jerri Marr, supervisor of the Pike and San Isabella national forests. “Today we’re going to see how all the things that we’ve done hold.”
Two bodies were found in the ruins of one house, one of almost 350 destroyed in this city 60 miles south of Denver. The victims’ names haven’t been released. Police say fewer than 10 people may be unaccounted for.
Herald Staff Writer Stephanie Cook contributed to this report.