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Air Park battle intensifies in 2nd day

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

A single-engine air tanker drops fire retardant ahead of the fire front Monday morning in the fight to contain the lightning-sparked blaze south of Durango.

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

Firefighting reinforcements arrived Monday to help battle a 451-acre wildfire that broke out Sunday southwest of Durango.

Two single-engine air tankers, one heavy air tanker and three helicopters were working on the blaze. About 150 firefighters were on scene, with more crews expected to arrive Monday night.

More precise mapping Monday prompted fire officials to revise down an earlier estimate that put the fire at more than 500 acres Sunday. By Monday evening, it was back up at 499 acres.

“Most of that growth was from a firing-operations test,” said Fire Information Officer Pam Wilson. “We were testing conditions to see what would happen if we did a ‘burnout,’ to see how the fuels would react. We were able to secure the northern end of the fire in the vicinity of the dam (at Lake Nighthorse).”

The lightning-caused fire was burning through piñon and juniper on Southern Ute Indian and federal lands about a mile west of Animas Air Park, a small airport south of Durango.

Wilson said 405 acres of fire activity was on the reservation, with the remainder on Bureau of Reclamation land.

The fire is burning about two miles east of Trapper’s Crossing subdivision. About 145 homes have been put on pre-evacuation, meaning they may need to evacuate at a moment’s notice.

“Butch (Knowlton) made courtesy calls Sunday night to homeowners to tell them, ‘Don’t worry, you can sleep in your homes,’” Wilson said about the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness for La Plata County.

The fire burned throughout the day Monday, but did not make any significant runs. The plume of smoke that rose prominently against a blue sky Sunday looked more like a wisp of smoke Monday afternoon.

A small amount of precipitation fell over the burn area Sunday night, according to a news release from the Durango Interagency Dispatch Center. More rain fell Monday evening starting about 6 p.m.

“We pulled people off the fire when it started raining, because the roads can get really nasty out there when it’s wet, and we didn’t want people stuck,” Wilson said Monday night. “Out here at Sunnyside Elementary, where we’re set up, it rained hard for 10 or 15 minutes then steadily for 45 minutes or so. Our plans for tomorrow are contingent on how much rain falls tonight.”

The fire was 5 percent contained Monday night.

Firefighters will be working to keep flames west of La Posta Road, south of Nighthorse Reservoir, north of Indian Creek and east of Box Canyon.

A federal incident comsmand team is managing the fire, while local fire agencies are assisting with structure protection, said Hal Doughty, deputy chief with the Durango Fire & Rescue Authority.

The fire was burning in steep, rugged terrain that made it difficult for ground crews to have a significant impact, he said.

“This is a fire that makes you a real believer in air resources,” Doughty said. “Without the air assets that we have, I would be really concerned.”

Drier air is expected later this week on Thursday and Friday, said Dennis Phillips, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

Gusts from the storms could increase fire activity.

The fire was first reported at 11:48 a.m. Sunday west of the Animas Air Park in Basin Creek. It started with one tree and grew to more than 400 acres in one afternoon, illustrating how dry conditions remain even after the monsoons arrived a couple of weeks ago, Doughty said.

“That’s pretty significant fire behavior,” he said. “It should really be a cautionary note to people living in La Plata County.

“The rainfall we’ve been getting has been spotty,” he added. “It will rain an inch in one place and a half mile down the road it doesn’t rain a drop.”

Federal and local government officials eased fire restrictions last week.

The Air Park Fire is one of several significant wildfires that have sparked this summer in Southwest Colorado. Other fires included:

The Weber Fire, which started June 22 about six miles south of Mancos and burned 10,133 acres.

The Lightner Creek Fire, which started June 26 a few miles west of Durango and burned 90 acres.

The State Line Fire, which started June 23 about a mile north of New Mexico along U.S. Highway 550 and burned 350 acres.

Residents in Trappers Crossing and parts of Rafter J subdivision have been on notice since Sunday they may need to evacuate. Reverse 911 calls were made to 146 homeowners.

Some received the call about 6:15 p.m. Sunday on their cellphones during an orchestra concert at Music in the Mountains at the Fort Lewis College Concert Hall. Several people got up and left the performance.

A threatened gas well pad was shut down Sunday, with gas companies preparing to shut down others in the area.

The Bureau of Reclamation has postponed tests that were scheduled Monday at the outlet from Lake Nighthorse.

Releases of 15 to 150 cubic feet of water a second had been scheduled to see how engineered stretches of Basin Creek below the dam perform.

The agency postponed the tests because people parking along La Posta Road where Basin Creek empties into the Animas River were hindering the work of firefighters.

shane@durangoherald.com Herald Staff Writers Dale Rodebaugh and Ann Butler contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Air Park Fire had burned Bureau of Land Management land.

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