Drought. A snowpack vanished by the end of May. Dry vegetation and erratic winds.
Conditions that could describe La Plata County today were also present two decades ago when a spark ignited the Missionary Ridge Fire on Sunday, June 9, 2002.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Missionary Ridge, the largest wildfire in La Plata County and the seventh largest in Colorado history. As those who were there reflect on the blaze that scorched 73,000 acres, killed one firefighter and destroyed 47 homes and cabins, they recall expectation and surprise, destruction and a community united, and eerie parallels to today.
“The stage was perfectly set for extreme fire behavior that day with the extreme dryness, winds coming out of the south (and) the location of the fire starting where winds could blow it up the canyon, creating a chimney effect,” said Butch Knowlton, director of the La Plata County Office of Emergency Management at the time. “It all added up. It all came together to be, unfortunately, a perfect scenario for a big fire.”
To understand the Missionary Ridge Fire, one must first grasp the environment at the time.
In the winter of 2001 to 2002, snowpack in Southwest Colorado was about 55% of normal, melting completely by late May, about a month ahead of schedule, according to a case study by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Temperatures were five degrees above average in June and the year marked the second driest since 1980 and the peak of Colorado’s worst recorded drought at the time. By the beginning of June, just 1.31 inches of rain had dampened La Plata County.
“We knew the potential. We knew how dry it was. We were getting the information that things were not looking good,” said Randy Black, deputy chief of the Durango Fire Protection District, who was a volunteer firefighter at the time. “When you get that page, your heart just kind of sinks.”
At about 2:30 p.m., amid Animas River Days, a spark combusted vegetation near the first switchback at the base of Missionary Ridge Road. Fire investigators never identified the specific cause of the fire, but they concluded that it was likely started by a carbon particle from a vehicle exhaust pipe.
Knowlton received a page and immediately drove north. Soon, he could see the smoke and the fire beginning to move up the mountain.
“I knew that no matter what size fire it was it had the potential to grow into something very big and do it very quickly,” he said.
At 4 p.m., the fire was burning 100 acres. By the end of the day, it had consumed 6,500.
Randy Baker, who now serves as a battalion chief for DFPD, was a firefighter on duty the day the Missionary Ridge Fire started.
By the time he arrived at the scene, the blaze was moving toward Missionary Ridge, but crews were not terribly concerned.
Then the winds changed.
As the fire pushed toward the Animas Valley, the firefighting response switched to protecting houses along East Animas Road (County Road 250). Firefighters called in air support and additional resources.
“By the time all that happens, which takes quite a while, that’s pretty much when we knew we kind of lost the fire,” Baker said.
Worsened by steep terrain, wind and vegetation that was as dry as kiln-dried lumber, the Missionary Ridge Fire was fast and erratic.
It scorched ponderosa pine, mixed conifer and spruce-fir forests up to 11,400 feet in elevation, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report. Aspens, which do not typically burn because of their moisture, were vaporized by flames 100 feet tall.
“It just took everything in its path. Big trees, little trees, aspen trees, pine trees – it took it,” Knowlton said.
The fire behaved so radically, and the weather was so challenging, that fire behavior analysts could not predict the fire. Their fire danger charts simply didn’t work, Black said.
“Nobody had ever seen that kind of fire behavior before. Everything about it was just off the charts,” he said.
Over 39 days, about 2,300 firefighters battled the Missionary Ridge Fire as it jumped roads and stretched past Vallecito Reservoir. Firefighter Alan Wyatt would die during the blaze after an aspen tree with a burned and unstable root system fell on him while he cleared a hazardous area near Middle Mountain.
The fire was the first ever for the San Juan Hotshots, and 2002 marked the first year of the Durango Air Tanker Base. Both were instrumental in fighting the blaze.
The San Juan Hotshots first day on the blaze a fire tornado tore across the dry lake bed of Vallecito Reservoir as they fought to protect houses northeast of the town, said Shawna Legarza, La Plata County’s director of Emergency Management and the superintendent of the San Juan Hotshots during Missionary Ridge.
“I remember calling the air attack, and I said, ‘Give me every air tanker and every water dropping helicopter you have because we have to hold the fire here,’” she said. “I'll never forget it. We kept the Missionary Ridge map for a long time in the hotshot office.”
Crystal Schmit and her husband, Paul, moved to their new property along Florida Road (County Road 240) two weeks before the Missionary Ridge Fire began, where they planned to build a house.
All of their belongings were in the existing building on the property when it burned.
When she returned after being evacuated for three days, all that remained was the tin from the roof, the frames of the refrigerator, washer and dryer, and melted nozzles left by firefighting crews.
A bus driver for Durango School District 9-R, Schmit was busy ferrying firefighters to the front line of the fire when she was told she was not allowed to return to her house.
“The rumor floating around here was we had a couple of days to get out,” she said. “By the time the firefighters came into my bus and we got them down to the fairgrounds, it was like ‘You've got three hours to get out.’”
Two weeks into the fire, William Herringer and his wife would drive to Hermosa and watch the Missionary Ridge Fire burn. The fire began about a mile from their house along East Animas Road, and their initial anxiety receded as the fire burned eastward to Vallecito and uphill from their home.
But the fire slowly began burning downhill. Firefighters constructed a fire barrier and created more defensible space around the Herringer’s home. Crews beat back the blaze and homeowners in the area celebrated.
Within days, the fire ignited again on the hillside above the Herringers. An ash cloud collapsed sending hot embers near the Bar D Chuckwagon. Flames raced toward their home.
“All that was left of our house at the end was some concrete and a chimney that the former owner had built to withstand a Class 6 earthquake on a Richter scale,” Herringer said.
Peter Glick was nowhere near the Missionary Ridge Fire. Across the Animas Valley and U.S. Highway 550, he watched the blaze from his home on the ridge of Falls Creek.
At night, the smoke, thick and dark amid the glow of flames, would settle in the valley. During the day, it would inundate Glick’s home.
Glick and his wife decided to escape the smoke and travel to Arizona. Within an hour of arriving there, he received a call from a friend that their house was on fire.
As the Missionary Ridge Fire burned, an electric weed fence sparked the Valley Fire, which exploded near Falls Creek, burning 405 acres, Glick’s home and nine others.
When Glick and his wife returned to Durango, he was directed to the Durango Mall where a pop-up shop had been set up. They were told to pick out whatever they needed for free.
“We said, ‘We don't we need anything. I can afford to go and buy underwear and that kind of thing,’” Glick said. “They said, ‘You have to take things because that’s what we’re here for. That’s what we want to do.’”
Schmit, Herringer and Glick each found shelter with family and friends who were unaffected by the Missionary Ridge Fire. All three remember the Durango and broader La Plata County communities responding with overwhelming support.
“The community response was pretty amazing,” Herringer said. “Immediately upon being evacuated, we had multiple people offering us places to stay, including people that we didn’t really know that well.”
Glick recalled stores that gave those affected by the fire steep discounts, and people would pay for the Glicks’ dinners.
Community members would collectively reprimand travelers for smoking outside.
The Missionary Ridge Fire was contained July 17, but that was not the end of its destruction.
As those with experience know, the aftereffects are often as devastating, or worse, than the fires themselves.
“About the second day into the fire as (it) started moving south into each one of the headwater areas of all of these small canyons, I knew we were in trouble,” Knowlton said. “My mind started shifting a little bit into the future to start evaluating how bad the flooding was going to be from some of these drainages.”
Within a week of containment, rains began washing fire debris into the Florida River and flooding the valley. Trees, boulders and even cars were swept away.
Over the next few months, and in some areas stretching more than a decade, flash floods, mudslides, rockslides and falling trees would plague the burn area, releasing hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of material with the slightest precipitation.
“There were rocks that moved in some of these drainages up here by my property (in the Animas Valley) that were probably five or six SUVs in size, and the floodwaters moved those down the canyons hundreds of feet,” Knowlton said.
Glick was staying with friends at Elkhorn Ranch after his home burned, and their home sat beside a creek that came down from Missionary Ridge.
As they sat on the porch, a recent rain unleashed a wall of debris.
“All of a sudden, we heard a rumble and we saw a boulder about the size of a Volkswagen coming down the stream aiming right at us, and behind it was just massive amounts of mud,” Glick said. “That was so terrifying to us, we had to leave that house and we went and checked into a hotel in town and stayed there for three or four weeks.”
In all, it took about $40 million to suppress the fire. It racked up another $50 million in direct costs, which included property and timber losses, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Indirect costs, which included business losses, unemployment and the effects of floods and mudslides, eclipsed $50 million.
Another $8 million and more went to rehabilitating the forests burned by the fire.
Knowlton flew with the federal Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation team, whose job it was to assess and conduct immediate forest rehabilitation, when it surveyed the burn area.
He explained the flooding the Animas Valley and its tributaries were prone to, but the team’s reaction was one of skepticism.
“As we went down Missionary Ridge, I remember all I heard in my headset while we were flying was, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God,’” Knowlton said.
Crews dropped grass seed on thousands of acres of the burn area to stabilize the steep mountain slopes. The San Juan Hotshots helped with straw mulch that was spread to prevent erosion. Remediation teams constructed log erosion barriers and debris diversions.
Over the last two decades, planting by the U.S. Forest Service, Florida Water Conservancy District and other groups has spurred regrowth, but mostly the forest has regenerated itself.
Schmit, who rebuilt after the fire, can still see the effects of the Missionary Ridge Fire around her property, but the signs are gradually fading.
“It’s not totally grown over, but it’s getting close,” she said.
One of the federal responders to the fire told Knowlton that it would be difficult to watch the area burn, but that a healthier forest would spring up with more wildlife and beautiful aspen and oak.
“He named off all of these things that were going to happen after the fire, and sure enough, he was right,” Knowlton said.
“If the Missionary Ridge Fire broke out today, it probably wouldn't have gotten that big because we’ve got more air resources readily available that may have been able to slow it down or stop it on Missionary Ridge before it blew up and blew over,” Black said. “We’re light years ahead of where we were 20 years ago.”
With added investment, coordination and the evolution of wildland firefighting over the last two decades, fire officials feel more prepared to respond to the challenging conditions they were met with during the Missionary Ridge Fire.
But for those who experienced the blaze, another fire in La Plata County like Missionary Ridge is simply a matter of time.
With climate change increasing temperatures, drying out Southwest Colorado’s forests and exacerbating wildfires, conditions in 2022 are not dissimilar from where they were 20 years ago.
Though Southwest Colorado received more snow this year than in 2002, it too vanished by the end of May. Extended drought has left vegetation parched, with four wildfires igniting in La Plata County within about the last month. This spring has been one of the windiest in memory.
When the Missionary Ridge Fire ended two decades ago, it was the second largest fire in state history.
Today, it is seventh, about a third of the Cameron Peak Fire.
Fifteen of Colorado’s 20 largest fires have occurred in the last nine years. Four of the five largest have occurred in the last three years.
“I think we’re in for a world of hurt,” Herringer said. “We’re in a drought cycle that is extreme and persistent, there doesn’t seem to be any way that that cycle is going to break. Our forests are gonna keep getting drier and drier and our forest fires are going to get bigger and bigger.”
When Schmit hears a helicopter and sees smoke, a chill goes down her spine and memories of the Missionary Ridge Fire come flooding back.
“It doesn’t ever really leave you,” she said.