Burro Fire officials draw down personnel after ‘soaking’ rains

Monday, July 9, 2018 5:48 PM
The Dolores Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest received a gift from the community thanking firefighters for their work on the Burro Fire.
A burn scar in Bear Creek Canyon. Crews are continuing mop-up operations after weekend rains gave the Burro Fire “a good soaking,” said public information officer Kathy Russell.
A smoldering log from the Burro Fire in mid-June. “These kinds of big fires tend to smolder for a very long time,” said public information officer Kathy Russell.

Rain in the San Juan Mountains continued to put down the Burro Fire east of Dolores this weekend, resulting in a drawdown of fire personnel and an increase in the level of containment.

As of Sunday morning, only 27 personnel were assigned to the fire, down from 45 on Saturday. Containment was raised to 50 percent, up from 40 percent, and the fire’s footprint remained at 4,593 acres.

Public information officer Kathy Russell said afternoon rains gave the area “a good soaking” on Thursday and Friday, and the weekend’s rain left the area muddy and puddled. Trees were dripping-wet, she said, and no smoke was visible.

The weather has been favorable for firefighting efforts ever since temperatures started cooling down earlier this week. Fire officials have determined that the fire no longer posed a threat, but crews will continue to monitor it, Russell said. Officials are prepared to ramp up personnel quickly if the weather should turn hot and dry.

“The fire was calmed down already because of the increased humidity, and when that rain came, it calmed down even more,” she said. “We expect it to continue at very low levels.”

Although rain showers Thursday through Saturday came with lightning, Russell said the lightning didn’t seem to have caused any more fire activity. Firefighters always leave exposed places “at the first sign of lighting,” according to a press release.

Burro Fire crews have finished building a contingency line down to Colorado Highway 145, and the San Juan Hotshots who spearheaded that effort have left the scene, Russell said. Out of the remaining personnel, several spent Saturday removing firefighting equipment from the area and taking it to the U.S. Forest Service’s district office in Dolores, at 29211 Colorado Highway 184, which now functions as the fire’s public information office.

According to the release, all equipment must be inventoried, cleaned and shipped to the Rocky Mountain Interagency Support Cache, which supplies wildland firefighting efforts across the West.

On Saturday, there were about 45 firefighters working on the Burro Fire, but Russell said about 20 left on Sunday. Some of them were members of the interagency incident management team and were required to depart after working 21 days on the fire.

Other personnel planned to continue clearing and widening containment lines. Remaining crews will continue to mop up smoldering areas and watch for hot spots.

Russell would not provide an estimate of what would be considered an acceptable containment level, stating that factors including weather, fire lines, the availability of dry timber and elevation affect a risk assessment.

“The bottom line – if our firefighters felt that the community would be at risk, there would be more firefighters up there,” she said. “Fuels are getting wetter and wetter every day.”

Infrared mapping flights have ceased because of the fire’s lack of activity and the need for aerial firefighting resources elsewhere.

Russell said that even though the fire is lying low for now, it’s not dead.

“These kinds of big fires tend to smolder for a very long time,” she said.

Although the rains were welcome in Southwest Colorado, residents shouldn’t mistake them for the monsoon season, said Ben Moyer, meteorologist with National Weather Service in Grand Junction. The recent storms came from the northeast, and true monsoonal rains come from the south, Moyer said.

“Yes, we are grateful for the precipitation we have received. But we haven’t really had a direct, long-term tap into the tropics yet,” Moyer said.

He said monsoonal patterns have established themselves over southern New Mexico, and in the west, as far north as Las Vegas, Nevada, but they have not yet worked their way to Colorado.

The coming of monsoonal activity in Southwest Colorado varies from year to year and can start anywhere from late June to as late as August, Moyer said. This year, he said monsoonal patterns are expected to emerge later this month. The rain hasn’t driven away the drought or heightened fire danger in Montezuma County. Stage 2 fire restrictions remain in effect throughout the San Juan National Forest.

The Hermosa Creek Wilderness and the Colorado Trail between Molas Pass and Junction Creek are still closed, and Russell said she doesn’t know when they would reopen.

The Durango Herald contributed to this article.