Durango Herald file photo
As Southwest Colorado eagerly awaits snowfall, public-land managers are contemplating the recent roller coaster of a fire season and looking ahead to what a dry winter could mean for next year. Although our local fires can’t compare with the tragic wildfires that engulfed the Front Range, our season was also intense and marked by extremes.
The 2012 fire season started very early; the first wildfire on the San Juan National Forest was started on April 9 by an escaped campfire northeast of Pagosa Springs. Firefighters fought it for three days, keeping it to 25 acres, but the fact that higher elevations were this dry during what should have been our “mud season” was an ominous precursor. The fire season would go on to last extremely long, marking the first time in recorded history that four large fires would actively burn on the San Juan in late fall.
The Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center reports that wildfires burned almost 40,000 acres across Southwest Colorado this year, with firefighters responding to 460 separate wildland fires.
In 2012, the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $11 million fighting fires on the San Juan National Forest. This does not include what was spent by our partners: the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain agencies, Mesa Verde National Park, counties and volunteer fire departments.
Much of what we spent stayed in local communities. For example, during the Little Sand Fire north of Pagosa Springs, more than $850,000 was spent to purchase local goods and services, including meals, equipment and salaries for local firefighters.
Little Sand was our first major fire, starting in mid-May. Conditions were so dry that fire restrictions were put in place across public lands in early June. By mid-June, the Weber Fire erupted south of Mancos; the very next day, the Stateline Fire exploded on the Colorado-New Mexico border south of Durango, and days later, a sudden column on the western edge of Durango announced the Lightner Creek Fire. While federal, state and local firefighters concentrated on these, initial attack crews chased lightning starts from Chimney Rock to Mesa Verde.
A brief monsoon arrived in early July, and fire restrictions were eased at higher elevations, but lower elevations remained dangerously dry. By mid-month, the Airpark Fire had ignited on the southern edge of Durango, and dry lightning storms were again wreaking havoc. Meanwhile, firefighters were still working on the Weber and Little Sand fires, with smoke choking valleys across southwestern Colorado.
In one week, federal firefighters responded to 68 lightning starts. One silver lining was the fact that the national resources we had on hand for the larger fires could be “borrowed” to keep nearby lightning starts from growing into major wildfires. Heavy airtankers and large helicopters stopped many of these in their tracks, including the HD-4 Fire south of Bayfield, 151 Fire near Chimney Rock and X-Rock Fire in Durango. The incoming hot shot crews, smoke jumpers and engines were another blessing we shared between fires.
Another abbreviated monsoon arrived at the end of July, and we were able to lift fire restrictions, but throughout early August, residents remained on edge. When haze was carried into the area from fires burning in other western states, the Interagency Fire Dispatch Center reassured the public that we were still monitoring for “smokes” with regular reconnaissance flights. Dry lightning activity returned by mid-August, with initial attack crews again chasing starts all over the map, including the Burns Fire southwest of Pagosa Springs.
After a respite in September, an unusual fall fire season re-emerged in early October, when an astute fire responder named the Goblin Fire in correct anticipation that this high-elevation fire north of Durango would still be burning by Halloween. Meanwhile, lightning strikes were again popping up all over the map, and by mid-month, hundreds of fires were smoldering at low and high elevations.
In mid-October, focus shifted to the Vallecito Fire, which ignited in an area burned by the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire. Less than two weeks later, the Roatcap Fire took everyone by surprise near Dolores. The Vallecito Fire would continue to disrupt life in that community into November, when a dusting of snow finally arrived to help firefighters gain the upper hand. The light snow would also dampen the Goblin Fire, which had continued to creep vertically into the West Needles to elevations exceeding 11,000 feet, but both of these fires still continue to smolder and are being monitored.
This fire season was unrelenting, hot and dangerous; and the efforts of firefighters and dispatchers were extraordinary. The silver lining is that these experiences offered lessons that can help us prepare for a future where unusual fire behavior may become business as usual. The lessons are hard ones that can’t be ignored.
Residents are learning that fire is an inevitable fact of life in this corner of the world. Public-land managers are learning to more effectively take advantage of topography to manage fires, while prioritizing the safety of firefighters and communities. We are also honing our ability to work seamlessly across jurisdictions with our partner agencies.
Every wildfire presents a unique situation; some we can extinguish quickly, others we can’t. Having residents and visitors who understand that our approaches must be tailored to each fire setting and each particular fire season makes the job of our firefighters much easier and ultimately safer.
Mark Stiles is the supervisor of the San Juan National Forest. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.