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Where there’s ‘smoke,’ there’s not always fire

Durango firefighters say ‘smoke scares’ not uncommon this time of year
It’s difficult to tell the difference between low-level clouds and steam from a Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge locomotive in October 2016 as rain showers move through the area. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

As monsoon clouds gather over the San Juan Mountains, they offer some relief from the summer heat. But they also get mistaken for something more sinister: wildfires.

It is not uncommon for visitors and residents to report wildfires this time of year. When firefighters respond, they sometimes find only clouds clinging to the sides of mountains.

“This time of year, with clouds and rain, sometimes there’s confusion,” said Michael Krupa, deputy fire chief-operations with the Durango Fire Protection District.

Make no mistake, if residents think they see smoke they should call 911, Krupa said.

Still, it never hurts for residents to take a second look and gather additional information if they have any doubts about whether there is an actual fire, he said.

“Sometimes, I think it’s very easy for anyone to see something very quickly and just automatically call 911 without taking a second to actually look and see: Can I tell where it's coming from? Does this look like it’s smoke coming from a tree versus a cloud?” he said.

Clouds obscure parts of Hermosa Cliffs as rain and thunderstorms move through the area in June 2015. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Krupa said it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish wildfire smoke from water dogs, which are clumps of clouds or fog that cling to mountainsides after a storm. And if a recent storm has produced lightning, it is not unreasonable for someone to assume one of those bolts sparked a wildfire.

Even weather forecasters can be fooled.

Lucas Boyer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said he and his wife were walking last week and had difficulty distinguishing whether they were seeing a cloud or wildfire smoke.

“You can mistake a cloud for smoke pretty easily, especially in the late afternoon when the light is kind of playing,” he said. “If you’ve got sunlight behind a storm and it can look a little dark and you get enough obstruction of the light, it can certainly take on the hue of smoke.”

It is natural to mistake clouds for smoke this time of year, during the height of wildfire season when monsoons are beginning to materialize, Boyer said.

Southwest Colorado residents have seen their share of wildfires in recent years, including the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002, the 416 Fire in 2018 and dozens of smaller wildfires that spring to life almost every summer.

The monsoons have been “hit or miss” this year, Boyer said. The region is not receiving regular daily storms, and those that have materialized have been more isolated and cellular as opposed to widespread storms, he said. They tend to form in the mountains at a good distance from urban hubs, making clouds even more difficult to distinguish from smoke, he said.

Krupa couldn’t put a number on how many “smoke scares” firefighters respond to, but he said it happens regularly. And it’s not just clouds playing tricks on people.

Some see ditch burning, agricultural burning, burn piles or a campfire and assume the worst, he said.

In those instances, it helps if the person doing the burning obtained a permit or called in their agricultural burning ahead of time, he said.

“We regularly get called out to check smoke investigations and/or fires that weren’t called in,” he said.

He said La Plata County remains under stage 1 fire restrictions, which means no open burning like slash piles and yard waste. Enclosed campfires and fire pits are allowed, though.

“A lot of times, people during this time of year, they’ll see a quick glow or see smoke and immediately call 911 and report someone burning illegally,” Krupa said.


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