Rain is expected mainly after 5 p.m. Friday, and while that might be viewed as a good thing with the 416 Fire now listed at 32,076 acres, associated winds and even heavier rains Saturday could complicate firefighting.
Storms can be both good and bad, Incident Commander Todd Pechota said Thursday during a news conference. Rains can help control active fire behavior, but the storm’s gusty winds and chance of lightning pose risks to firefighters.
The 416 Fire remains at 15 percent containment with the blaze growing mainly on its northern and western fronts. Fire officials are still searching for ways to stop the fire from spreading in those directions.
“There’s no way to insert anyone in there,” said Ken Gregor, operations section chief.
On Thursday, along the Falls Creek Ridge on the south and west fronts, the fire line was cooled by fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
Work continued on the southern front to enhance the secondary fire lines. Also, mop-up continued on the east and southeast sides, and crews repositioned equipment that is no longer needed.
The combined cost to fight the 416 and Burro fires is now at $12.45 million. The Burro Fire 23 miles east of Dolores was at 3,408 acres Thursday.
The moisture levels from the weekend’s predicted storms will prevent the 416 Fire and the Burro Fire from merging in the next few days, Pechota said at Thursday’s news conference.
“This fire is going to be here until Mother Nature puts it out,” he added.
The National Weather Service in Grand Junction issued a flash-flood watch for Saturday, particularly in 416 and Burro fire burn areas.
“I have one piece of really good news,” Dolores Mayor Chad Wheelus told people gathered Thursday evening for a community meeting on the Burro Fire in Dolores. “I got rained off the golf course today.”
Also, a news conference scheduled Thursday afternoon at the Incident Command Post at Animas Valley Elementary School had to be moved indoors because of rain.
Burnouts planned in the southern portion of the 416 Fire between County Road 204 and County Road 205 stalled the last few days because of adverse weather forecasts. Pechota wants to get those burnouts completed as soon as safely possible.
Another red-flag warning will be in effect Friday, meaning dry, hot and windy conditions will be present during the day. The Weather Service forecast north of Durango expects patchy smoke before 9 a.m. Friday. But the forecast also calls for a 30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms mainly after 5 p.m. with a high of 67 and southwest winds from 10 to 15 mph.
For Saturday, the forecast has an 80 percent chance of rain with some episodes of heavy rain and a flash-flood warning in place from 9 a.m. to midnight. The likelihood of rain drops to 70 percent Saturday night, but with the possibility of heavy rain episodes remaining.
On Sunday, the Weather Service expects a 50 percent chance of showers with a high of only 59 degrees about 10 miles north of Durango.
“Right now, we’re pretty much at the mercy of the weather and nature itself,” Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin told assembled community members in Dolores.
An additional 375 residences and 19 businesses that had been evacuated were allowed to re-enter from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday.
Re-entry was permitted for evacuated residents and businesses on the west side of U.S. Highway 550 from mile marker 33.5 at Honeyville north to the Glacier Club entrance at mile marker 39.5. The re-entry included Animas Village and Pine Acres.
Residents and businesses on the east side of Highway 550 to the Animas River from Mead/Albrecht Lane north to Rockwood also were allowed to re-enter. This included The Ranch and Goodman subdivisions.
These residences and businesses remain under pre-evacuation orders, and residents will be subject to the limited opening hours of U.S. Highway 550, which closed at 8 p.m. Thursday and reopens at 8 a.m. Friday with law enforcement escorts.
Almost 70 percent of evacuees have returned to their homes, Sheriff Sean Smith said Thursday. Currently, 998 homes remain evacuated, and 1,658 homes are on pre-evacuation.
“Our goal is to get folks home when it’s safe to do so,” Smith said.
Smith said officials have had discussions about possibly moving the southern closure point north to allow residents to travel up Highway 550 without an escort, but a final decision has not been made.
La Plata County Search and Rescue, which prepares to support the community through the first 48 hours of any disaster, is now two weeks into the 416 Fire.
And the agency is seeking assistance from people who would like to volunteer to help meet the challenges brought by the fires.
Search and Rescue’s current tasks include helping with re-entry packets at all evacuated locations, staffing Rapid Tag stations to help people get cards, assisting law enforcement with the check-in and check-out processes at checkpoints and staffing the Community Hotline to answer questions and link people to community resources.
Interested volunteers should contact Andrew Grant by email at email@example.com or call 749-9036.