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Firefighters gain upper hand on Perins Peak Fire, but weekend weather raises concern

‘The likelihood of it being a lightning-caused fire is slim to none,’ official says
A Type 1 firefighting helicopter gets water from Turtle Lake on Wednesday while fighting the Perins Peak Fire burning west of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Firefighters stopped the Perins Peak Fire on Wednesday as mild weather and significant air resources helped crews limit the growth of the blaze to just 2 acres.

The fire is now at 102 acres after reaching about 100 acres Tuesday overnight. More accurate mapping Wednesday morning downsized the fire from Tuesday night’s 105-acre estimate.

As of Wednesday evening, the fire was 0% contained, but Brad Pietruszka, operations section chief with the San Juan Type 3 Incident Management Team coordinating the firefighting response, said containment was likely to increase in the coming days.

“That should be in the pretty near future depending on how we fare through the night and tomorrow (Thursday), which we’re feeling quite confident about right now,” Pietruszka said during a Wednesday evening briefing.

Pietruszka said the Perins Peak Fire was also exhibiting “mellow fire behavior” on Wednesday.

Fire officials announced Wednesday that they suspect the fire was human-caused and have ordered an investigator to probe the start of the blaze.

“The likelihood of it being a lightning-caused fire is slim to none,” said Lorena Williams, spokeswoman for Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch.

They also confirmed that the fire is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, meaning the BLM is responsible for much of the firefighting costs.

A San Juan Interagency Hotshot Crew member makes his way down from the Perins Peak Fire on Wednesday to a staging area in the Rockridge subdivision. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The Perins Peak Fire on Tuesday burned from the bottom of Rockridge Trail to the top of Perins Peak, scorching dense Gambel oak and mixed-conifer forest before meeting a fire scar left by the Lightner Creek Fire in 2017, according to Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch’s Facebook page.

The fire was reported at 4:51 p.m. Tuesday about 2 miles west of downtown Durango.

La Plata County put out this map showing the area on pre-evacuation, meaning residents should be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice. However, no evacuations had been ordered as of 7:45 p.m. Wednesday for the Perins Peak Fire west of Durango.

Pre-evacuation orders remained in place Wednesday evening for county roads 206 and 208 and the Dry Fork and Rockridge subdivisions late Wednesday afternoon. La Plata County has not issued any evacuation orders.

Trail access has been closed to Overend Mountain Park, Twin Buttes and Perins State Wildlife Area.

The San Juan Interagency Hotshots and Wyoming Interagency Hotshots met for a morning briefing at 7 a.m. Wednesday and then immediately moved to engage the fire, Williams said.

It marked the first time that crews were on the ground with the fire after safety concerns and rugged terrain prevented firefighters from engaging the blaze Tuesday.

Though close to the city of Durango, the fire is accessible only by foot.

Brad Pietruszka, operations section chief with the San Juan Type 3 Incident Management Team coordinating the firefighting response, addresses several local, state and federal officials during a briefing about the Perins Peak Fire on Wednesday evening at the La Plata County Administration Building. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

With crews unable to access the wildfire Tuesday, four large air tankers and two helicopters conducted all firefighting operations during the initial attack.

“With those safety concerns and losing daylight, we weren’t going to send ground crews into a dangerous situation,” Williams said. “The aviation response yesterday (Tuesday) was extremely successful at stopping forward progress at the ridgeline, and that bought time to then first thing this morning get ground crews in to start digging direct fire line.

Several local, state and federal officials attend a briefing about the Perins Peak Fire on Wednesday evening at the La Plata County Administration Building. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“Aviation can be a critical tool when it comes to buying ground resources time until they can get on scene, and then once they are on scene the two work together in tandem,” she said.

Ninety-five people, 1 bulldozer, multiple fire engines and multiple aircraft were assigned to the fire Wednesday, which was burning through timber and brush, according to a news release.

Firefighters constructed fire lines and aircraft continued to provide support throughout Wednesday. Crews were working directly at the fire’s edge with chain saws and hand tools, and they were also able to get water to the fire.

Brian Faith, wildland coordinator with Grand Lake Fire and Rescue, pumps water on Wednesday through 6,000 feet of hose to the Perins Peak Fire and to additional lines that go around the fire as hand crews battle the blaze west of Durango. Some fire crews are staging in the Rockridge subdivision. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Their efforts focused on the northern and eastern sides of the blaze because of concern for the Rockridge subdivision amid weather forecasts that call for increasing winds from the southwest over the weekend, Pietruszka said.

Two additional hot shot teams and ground resources will be joining the campaign Thursday as the Bureau of Land Management and San Juan National Forest look to shore up firefighting resources.

“We’re starting to get the flood of crews coming in that can reinforce those lines tomorrow and really start making good progress,” Williams said.

Firefighters were hoping Wednesday that the location of the fire near the Lightner Creek Fire scar on BLM and Colorado Parks and Wildlife lands would help them to slow the blaze, said Ted Holteen, spokesman for La Plata County.

However, the terrain has proved challenging. The area around Perins Peak is steep and difficult to access, which is why hot shot crews were called in, Pietruszka said.

A perimeter map of the Perins Peak Fire after the first day. The fire was reported at 4:51 p.m. Tuesday west of Durango and had grown to at least 105 acres by nightfall. (Courtesy of InciWeb)

Firefighters aimed to take advantage of mild weather Wednesday and Thursday ahead of difficult conditions over the holiday weekend.

The National Weather Service’s forecast for Durango calls for a high of 85 degrees Thursday with light winds ranging from 5 to 15 mph and gusts up to 25 mph.

Beginning Friday conditions will change. The National Weather Service has issued fire weather watches, the precursor to red flag warnings, for Friday and Saturday. Pietruszka said those warnings would also likely be in place on Sunday and Monday.

Despite the weekend forecast, fire officials were positive and confident about the progression of the firefighting during Wednesday’s evening briefing.

A Type 1 firefighting helicopter gets water from Turtle Lake on Wednesday while fighting the Perins Peak Fire burning west of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“We’re making great progress, so stay tuned and hopefully we will have this buttoned up in no time,” said Connie Clementson, field manager for the BLM’s Tres Rios Field Office.

“Mother Nature needs to cooperate for that to happen, but we’re making great progress,” she said.

While fire officials conveyed hope for the Perins Peak Fire, they were also somber with two wildfires near Durango less than two weeks apart. Pietruszka said two large fires igniting at relatively high elevations in May is rare and has not happened in at least 20 to 25 years.

“It’s looking to be a really long summer, and it’s just now getting started,” he said.

Jay Godson, incident commander for the San Juan Type 3 Incident Management Team, warned Durango residents that this year’s fire season could be challenging.

“I’ll be honest, I’m really nervous about where we’re heading in the next couple of months,” Godson said. “This is a fairly unusual event that we’re having large fires already in May. I really want to drive home the message: Be ready. Be prepared.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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