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Ute Pass Fire forces residents to flee homes northeast of Durango

Blaze is estimated to be 20-30 acres; evacuations lifted Friday night
An air tanker makes a drop on the Ute Pass Fire northeast of Durango on Friday. This photo was taken looking east toward the fire. (Courtesy of Jamie Knight)

About 60 homes were evacuated Friday afternoon northeast of Durango where a wildfire put up a large column of smoke and chewed through 20 to 30 acres of oak brush and pine trees in two hours.

The fire, dubbed the Ute Pass Fire, was reported about 3:45 p.m. near Ute Pass Road in the 4000 block of Florida Road (County Road 240).

No structures were lost as of 9 p.m. Friday.

The evacuation order was lifted Friday night, meaning residents were free to return home, said Chief Hal Doughty, with the Durango Fire Protection District.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation. Doughty said he is unaware of any lightning strikes in recent days that could have caused the fire.

The fire was expected to lay down Friday night, which will give firefighters a chance to build hand lines and dozer lines to protect homes.

“This fire is not over by any means,” Doughty said. “They are forecasting 30 mph winds tomorrow (Saturday), and there’s still going to be a lot of heat up there on that hillside.

“We bought ourselves some time today, and we kind of framed this fire so we are set up well to be able to move in on it and try to get some things done early in the morning before the fire activity really gets going,” he said.

A Type III incident team will take control of the blaze early Saturday. The incident team will have more command staff members and be able to summon more resources to squelch the fire, he said.

The Ute Pass Fire was reported about 3:45 p.m. Friday near Ute Pass Road in the 4000 block of Florida Road (County Road 240). (Durango Fire Protection District)
Firefighters were responding to a wildfire putting up a large column of smoke northeast of Durango on Friday afternoon. (Courtesy photo)

The fire put up a large column of smoke that was visible from Durango during the late afternoon and into the evening. It was burning on or within a mile of private property, federal property and possibly state land, Doughty said.

“There’s a couple of different directional ridges that come together and it’s on multiple sides of a couple of different ridge aspects,” he said. “So it’s pretty complex, pretty steep country that the fire is burning in right now.”

A mandatory evacuation was ordered for residents in the Ute Pass subdivision and homes along County Road 237. Residents were directed to the La Plata County Fairgrounds for assistance, resources and updates.

A larger area was placed on pre-evacuation, meaning residents were advised to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Dozens of homes remained on pre-evacuation Friday night.

La Plata County spokesman Ted Holteen said an emergency alert was sent to more people than intended warning them of a pre-evacuation.

The pre-evacuation alert was intended for areas on the south side of Florida Road, between Ute Pass and County Road 237, he said. Edgemont Ranch was not placed on pre-evacuation notice.

A map showing the mandatory evacuation area and the pre-evacuation area for the Ute Pass Fire northeast of Durango. The evacuation aws lifted shortly before 9 p.m. Friday. (Courtesy of La Plata County)
La Plata County issued this pre-evacuation map about 9 p.m. Friday for the Ute Pass Fire.

Doughty said about 100 firefighters were on scene. In addition, a helicopter, two heavy air tankers, two dozers and a spotter plane were called to assist.

Durango Police Department Cmdr. Ray Shupe warned people not to fly drones near the wildfire, because they could interfere with aircraft and lead to air resources being grounded.

The fire was burning on a ridgeline between Ute Pass and Horse Gulch, a recreational area known for its many mountain bike trails.

“There were homes that it was close to,” Doughty said. “It wasn’t like the flames were licking up the sides of the house, but there were homes that it was close enough to that they were definitely threatened.”

He reminded residents that the pink-red fire retardant being dropped by air tankers is just that – retardant. It slows down the fire but doesn’t necessarily stop the fire.

Doughty said firefighters have everything they need, and residents don’t need to worry about donating supplies or snacks. If the fire stretches into a multiday event, that may change, he said.

The best thing residents can do to help firefighters is to listen to firefighters’ directions, especially as it relates to no open-burning and being extra cautious about potential fire starters, he said.

“Our community, they’ve been through this before,” he said. “... We’ve all just got to take responsibility to make sure that we do everything we can to prevent these things.”

Herald Staff Writer Christian Burney contributed to this report.

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