HERMOSA – After two weeks of thick smoke from the 416 Fire, blue skies returned this week to northern La Plata County, disguising almost all evidence of the 34,000-acre fire that smolders below.
Though the fire experienced light, consistent rain last weekend, flames continue to creep through the underbrush of the San Juan National Forest. Weather forecasters are calling for a return to hot and dry conditions, which will further dry out fuels and could lead to active fire behavior. The fire is 35 percent contained, mainly along the southern and eastern perimeter.
Incident Commander Todd Pechota said containment lines are secure, but it’s too early to declare mission accomplished.
“The problem is an inch of rain doesn’t fix seven months of drought,” he said Tuesday during an interview with The Durango Herald. “The fire’s chapped up, but the point is, it’s not out. It will continue on. There’s still potential there, especially on the west side and a little bit on the northwest side for things to chunk around there for some time. But the values at risk are quite low. I think the monsoon and its arrival and its intensity will probably dictate the duration and have a lot to say with how much longer (it burns).”
The last of the remaining evacuees were allowed to return home Tuesday morning. Over 2,000 homes were evacuated during the course of the 19-day blaze, and some remain on pre-evacuation notice.
Throughout the 19 days crews have battled the blaze, Pechota worked with local law-enforcement agencies on strategies for protecting property. His objectives were to keep firefighters and the public safe, protect all structures in the area and keep the fire on the west side of U.S. Highway 550. As of Tuesday evening, no injuries had been reported, no structures had been lost and the fire remained on the west side of the highway.
“I said, ‘Let’s just get a win.’ If we get a whole bunch of small wins, hopefully it’ll add up to a big win,” Pechota said. “I’m not going to go away from that philosophy. We were asked to do a job, and we were paid and expected to do it. We just try and do it the best that we can.”
Pechota, who has led the Type I team since June 9, will continue leading operations on the fire until 6 a.m. Friday morning when it will be transferred to a National Incident Management Organization. The NIMO team, one of four in the nation, is smaller than the Rocky Mountain Team but can access personnel and equipment as the need arises, Pechota said.
“They can stay with a single fire for a long period of time,” Pechota said. “They’re highly scalable, as the fire either decreases in activity or increases. They’re very good at responding to those peaks and valleys. They’ve got tons and tons of experience on that team.”
The fire has had enormous effects on the community. La Plata County issued a state of local disaster the evening the fire broke out. Highway 550 was initially closed for two days, before reopening for two weeks with a police escort. Stage 3 fire restrictions were enacted, resulting in a complete shutdown of the San Juan National Forest and numerous public lands. Ash from the fire spilled into the Animas River this past weekend, briefly discoloring the river. The fire also changed drainage routes, which could cause potentially severe flooding problems in the coming months.
The fire has also inflicted a significant economic impact to the region. Many businesses in both Durango and Silverton have been hurt by the lack of tourists visiting the region. Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton recently urged the U.S. Department of Commerce to support communities in Southwest Colorado that could suffer long-term economic consequences. Gardner, Tipton, Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper all visited Durango on Friday to study up on the fire and learn more about the local economic impact.
The drought that the area faced before the breakout of the fire resulted in extremely low fuel moistures and presented significant challenges to firefighters.
“Anytime that you’re on a fire, operating in extreme drought conditions, that’s a game-changer,” Pechota said. “It changes the dynamics. Things happen that you wouldn’t normally expect them to happen.”
The drought wasn’t the only challenge Pechota faced. The topography of the land, with the mixture of drainages and steep canyons, made it difficult to insert firefighters directly on the line and created long extraction lines. Erratic winds could whip up at a moment’s notice and pose a danger to firefighters working the front lines.
“We were playing a bit of a tough hand based on weather and topography and fuels,” Pechota said. “In many, many places of the fire, we just couldn’t land on a place where being able to take care of them (firefighters) in the event of an injury was an acceptable risk.”
Pechota was also concerned about the fire’s proximity to homes and the city of Durango in general. The fact that the fire was across the highway from the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire wasn’t lost on him either.
“It’s kind of eerie,” he said. “If you’re a student of fire, you would look across the road and see the burn scar of Missionary Ridge. And what is the thing about Missionary Ridge that people remember? Some people it may have been the flooding. Some people it may have been the size. Some people it may have been the huge fire whirl that went across Vallecito. But many of us, the thing that we remember is that somebody died fighting the fire.
“That’s one of those things that when you’re asking young men and women to go engage a fire that you look right across the road and there is the burn scar from an event that took somebody’s life. It heightens our awareness, it heightens our sensitivity of operations, all those kind of things.”
The communication between local agencies allowed for a cohesiveness during the firefighting operations.
“I think these things have the tendency to drive wedges in communities, but we were never distracted by any kind of infighting or competing values,” Pechota said. “There was so much synergy working for the good of the citizens. There are some places in the country that could learn a lot from the officials and the relationships that were clearly in place prior to our arrival. Y’all got a good thing going down here.”
The support the community has shown firefighters has reached the Incident Command Post. Posters don the hallways of the building, and people have come out every morning to wave to the fire crews as they depart.
“It’s been incredible, absolutely incredible,” Pechota said. “It ranks near the top in terms of public support. You drive through town, you see all the signs. Those things are humbling, and the kids on the ground appreciate it.”