A plume of smoke emerged over Animas City Mountain, located just north of Durango, this week as firefighters began fulfilling a long-desired prescription to burn nearly 500 acres on the mountain’s mesa.
The Bureau of Land Management has 115 people involved in the operation, including personnel from the San Juan National Forest and the Durango Fire Protection District.
Firefighters burned 171 acres Monday, and conditions were cooperating Tuesday as burning got underway once again.
On Monday, Burn Boss trainee Ian Barrett anticipated that crews will burn about 250 acres Tuesday. A BLM spokesman said that burning would likely occur Wednesday and perhaps Thursday as well, although weather will be the determining factor.
The flames will stay primarily at ground level, rarely jumping higher than 1 to 2 feet. The intent of the fire is to reduce the availability of understory fuels.
“We’re trying to return fire to fire-adapted ecosystems,” said BLM Burn Boss Lonnie Newton as he and Barrett watched over the fire from Lions Den. “The whole objective is to prevent a large wildland fire from having real destructive effects.”
The need for mitigation in this area has been discussed for well over a decade. Other fuel-reduction efforts took place between 2009 and 2012, and planning for this burn officially began in 2019.
The complexity of a prescribed burn adjacent to an urban area requires everything to align perfectly.
Because of its location, the prescription is classified as a “Type 1” burn – the most complex according to the BLM’s incident classification system. But finding a Type 1 burn boss has been a challenge, and the BLM postponed this burn in October 2022 in part because the agency could not find one. Newton, who is qualified, is visiting Durango to oversee the burn from Spokane, Washington.
With the planning in place and the weather calm and clear, firefighters were able to start burning atop the mesa around noon Monday.
The fire will be set, managed and contained by two interagency Hotshot crews and three fire-suppression modules equipped with four fire engines and a tactical water tender. There is also a medium-sized type 2 helicopter and a dozer on-hand as contingency resources.
Newton said residents should not be concerned by wind in the forecast because wind speeds inside sheltered canopy are often much slower than higher-elevation gusts.
Despite widespread messaging, emergency calls poured in around 12:30 p.m. Monday as smoke became visible. La Plata County Director of Emergency Management Shawna Legarza said dispatch had received more than 40 calls to the 911 dispatch center within the first 40 minutes that smoke became visible.
The burn has been permitted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and air-quality monitors will ensure that fire activities comply with that permit.
“If the (smoke) levels are at a certain point, we’ll be limited to a certain lower amount of acres or we’re required to take a day off and let the air clear,” Barrett said.
Burns like this are not cheap; a spokesperson for the BLM estimated that, depending on how much time ultimately goes into managing the fire, it will cost somewhere between $150,000 and $250,000.
But, they are far cheaper than the alternative – fighting massive wildfires, when the terms of the weather conditions are set by nature, not firefighters.
“It will be a fraction of the cost of the Perins fire,” Barrett said, referring to a wildfire that scorched about 100 acres just west of Durango city limits in 2022. “These suppression incidents are millions.”
Burning may continue later in the week, officials warn, and area residents should not be concerned to see smoke rising over Animas City Mountain. Information about the fire can be found on the Inciweb page, or by calling the BLM’s information line at (970) 501-5665. Calls may also be made to the Emergency Operations Call Center at 385-8700.