Air forces take aim at fires

Lighter winds help crews hold back area blazes

An air tanker, heli-tanker and small airplane dropped water and fire retardant on the Vallecito Fire on Thursday, protecting homes in the Lake Vista Estates neighborhood. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

An air tanker, heli-tanker and small airplane dropped water and fire retardant on the Vallecito Fire on Thursday, protecting homes in the Lake Vista Estates neighborhood.

Lighter winds and the arrival of aircraft reinforcements Thursday helped crews control the advance of several wildfires burning in Southwest Colorado.

The Little East Fire, burning in the East Canyon and Cherry Creek areas near the La Plata-Montezuma county line, was restrained to between 80 and 100 acres, the same size as Wednesday. Two single-engine air tankers from Fort Collins stayed busy dropping fire retardant, and a helicopter was releasing loads of water over the flames. Crews from La Plata County’s Road and Bridge Department helped replenish the helicopter’s water tanks.

“We have been able to hold the fire as it tried to advance to the east to Cherry Creek Road (County Road 105),” Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office for Emergency Preparedness, said in a news release. “The aircraft have been successful in establishing a slurry line all the way around the perimeter of the fire.”

Fifty-five firefighters were keeping tabs on the Little East Fire on Thursday, with an additional 40 expected to arrive today. Most ground-crew efforts were focused on digging fire lines – areas devoid of flammable material – around the fire perimeter.

Meanwhile, the Vallecito Fire reached 5 percent containment and had grown to an estimated 230 acres as of 7 p.m. Thursday, said Forest Service fire information officer Pam Wilson. She described the increase of about 20 acres since Wednesday as “fairly insignificant.”

Two heavy air tankers arrived at Vallecito from Albuquerque on Thursday and made fire-retardant and water drops continuously from noon until nightfall. Wilson credited calmer winds and the tankers’ large capacity for slowing the spread of flames.

Night temperatures of near or below freezing also should help the flames “lay down” and restrain active growth, she said. Today’s forecast continues to be “dry, unstable weather with some gusty winds,” Wilson said, but it should calm down over the weekend.

Eighteen homes in the Lake Vista Estates subdivision, east of the lake, were still on pre-evacuation notice Thursday evening, but the structure-protection equipment called in Wednesday had been sent home because the risk of spread had decreased. Flames had reached within approximately three-quarters of a mile from the nearest houses on Ho Hum Drive off County Road 501.

Two bulldozers, one from the U.S. Forest Service and the other from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, worked to form a stronger fire line on the southern flank, nearest the houses. Most of the blaze is taking place on steep terrain among dead and fallen trees – or snags – charred by the Missionary Ridge Fire 10 years ago. Wilson said progress creating the fire line can be a bit slower in a snag zone because there are more downed logs obstructing the bulldozer.

A total of 113 personnel were on hand, including two hot-shot crews from California.

“We have all the resources we need. We aren’t hurting for resources,” Wilson said. Incident commanders at the Vallecito and Little East fires have been sharing resources as needed.

Crews from Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District also responded to a small, three-quarter-acre fire that sprang up near County Road 136 on Thursday afternoon.

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