Despite rain, Montezuma County keeps fire ban; two fires erupt

Monday, July 23, 2018 12:16 PM
The Plateau Fire north of McPhee Reservoir has burned 5-10 acres and was started by lightning several days ago.
A firefighter back-burns an area of the San Juan National Forest at the edge of the Burro Fire, burning east of Dolores in June.
The monsoon is bringing moisture into the Four Corners from the Gulf of Mexico. Durango has a 30 to 40 percent of rain Saturday and a 20 to 30 percent chance Sunday.
A brush fire near Towaoc in April, just before the county issued its fire ban.

Montezuma County has had an unusually rainy July, but officials say fire danger is still too high to lift the county burn ban, even if the monsoons have arrived.

The U.S. Forest Service has lifted fire restrictions in the San Juan National Forest, and on Wednesday La Plata County lifted its restrictions after a sharp increase in precipitation and humidity.

But Montezuma County is unlikely to follow suit for at least another week, according to multiple emergency services officials.

Sheriff Steve Nowlin said on Thursday that, while some parts of the county have been getting enough rain to start flash flooding, other areas are still dry and continue to face high fire danger.

Two lightning-caused fires were discovered Sunday in the San Juan National Forest north of McPhee Reservoir, said Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla.

The Plateau and West Guard fires are each 5-10 acres and uncontained. The Plateau Fire is burning in Plateau Canyon, a direct drainage of McPhee Reservoir. Due to the steep rugged terrain, a direct fight is not possible, so the fire is being managed to prevent it from reaching the rim and private property.

The West Guard Fire is burning northwest of the Glade Guard Station, an overnight Forest Service recreation rental in Dolores County. Fire crews are on scene for full-suppression efforts, Padilla said. The Trimble Point Road (Forest Road 523) was closed because of the West Guard Fire. Ten wildland firefighters, two engines and one helicopter are responding to the fires, and more resources have been ordered. Because of recent rains, fire behavior for both fires is low to moderate. The Plateau Fire was spotted by a member of the public Sunday, and the West Guard Fire was discovered during a helicopter flyover.

Recent rains in the Four Corners have come from the Gulf of Mexico, so they are certainly monsoonal, said Megan Stackhouse, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. Plus, the monsoon is well underway in Arizona and New Mexico.

Cortez weather watcher Jim Andrus said he’s measured 2.37 inches of rainfall in July so far, about 185 percent of normal for the month. The majority of that rain fell in 1½ hours on Tuesday evening, in a thunderstorm that briefly flooded several streets – and apartments – in south Cortez. Andrus said it was the heaviest rain he’d ever seen in the town.

“It was just amazing rainfall,” he said.

But the county is still behind on its precipitation for the year. Andrus said Cortez has received 5.54 inches of precipitation in 2018 so far, about 86 percent of normal for this time of year.

Tuesday’s thunderstorm brought lightning as well as rain. Personnel from the Cortez Fire Protection District, Lewis-Arriola Fire Department, Bureau of Land Management and Ute Mountain Ute Fire Department responded to multiple lightning-caused fires, Cortez Fire Chief Jay Balfour said. Most consisted of a single tree on fire and were quickly extinguished, but he said some parts of the county are still dry enough for lightning strikes to create a significant fire hazard.

While some streets were flooding in Cortez, he said, firefighters responded to a lightning strike near County Roads G and 21 where the ground was still dusty.

“In Lewis, there was just a trace of precipitation,” he said. “We need rain to soak the entire county, not just parts of it.”

Mancos Fire Chief Tony Aspromonte said Wednesday that his department had also responded to several small lightning strike fires throughout the week. On Wednesday, a small, lightning-caused fire forced part of Mesa Verde National Park to close early. Unlike the San Juan National Forest, Mesa Verde is still under a fire ban.

Nowlin praised firefighters for their quick response to the lightning strikes, and county residents for largely complying with the fire ban. He said he hopes to have the ban lifted by the end of July, but he said it depends on the weather and the feedback he receives from local fire chiefs.

“Dolores and probably half of Mancos are good,” he said. “But Cortez, Pleasant View, Lewis-Arriola – those fire districts have more dry areas.”

He added that the county’s fire districts have limited resources and have been responding to almost daily lightning strikes.

“If a supposedly controlled burn gets out of control on top of that, it really limits their resources and what they can do,” he said.

Although the county received little to no precipitation Wednesday and Thursday, Andrus said Southwest Colorado’s long-term forecast is looking favorable. The National Weather Service’s 30-day and 90-day outlooks predict above-average precipitation for Montezuma County, and Andrus said he has hopes for “a generous El Niño,” which would bring a much-needed wet winter to the region.

Montezuma County’s burn ban prohibits all open fires and fireworks across the county.

The Durango Herald contributed to this article.