Plateau Fire hits 16,300 acres; pre-evacuation lifted

Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 1:31 PM
Sam Green/For The JournalThe Plateau Fire flares up Sunday afternoon.
Sam Green/For The Journal

Flames flare up as the Plateau Fire makes it’s way down the hillside leading to McPhee Reservoir over the weekend.
Sam Green/For The JournalBoaters enjoy Saturday on McPhee Reservoir as the Plateau Fire burns along the shoreline.
Sam Green/For The JournalThe Dolores Norwood Road is closed at House Creek because of the Plateau Fire.
Sam Green/For The JournalThe Plateau Fire on Wednesday closed the House Creek Campground and boat ramp.
A Chinook helicopter dumps water along the Beaver Creek arm of McPhee while fighting the Plateau Fire.
Helicopters dump water on the Plateau Fire along Beaver Creek.

The Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office on Sunday lifted the pre-evacuation notice for the Plateau Fire, which has burned 16,300 acres north of Dolores since July 22. Containment reached 93 percent Sunday.

“The fire’s pretty well contained,” Sheriff Steve Nowlin said Sunday. “There’s some burning inside the lines, but it doesn’t pose a threat.”

Nowlin also announced that Dolores-Norwood Road would reopen at 7 a.m. Monday. Local officials and incident management team members plan to update residents further and answer questions during a public meeting at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Dolores Community Center, 400 Riverside Ave.

About 65 pre-evacuation notices were issued door to door Wednesday as the Plateau Fire grew to 9,000 acres and forced road closures that reached from the northern edge of Dolores to the southern tip of Lone Mesa State Park.

The closure encompassed an area bound roughly by McPhee Reservoir on the west, FSR 527 on the east, FSR 514 on the north and the San Juan National Forest boundary on the south. Evacuations were not mandatory.

All but a couple of residents stayed home throughout the pre-evacuation notice, Nowlin said, although some moved livestock, campers and trailers to safer locations. The Montezuma County Fairgrounds has provided a refuge for livestock since the notices went out.

Nowlin and Plateau Fire public information officer Pam Wilson encouraged drivers to remain cautious as they drive the Dolores-Norwood Road, which travels north from Dolores through the San Juan National Forest. There will be firefighters and smoke in the area.

Wilson emphasized that the Plateau Fire management team is confident that the fire line along Dolores-Norwood Road is secure and has cooled. Firefighters have walked the lines to check for hot spots about 65 feet into the line, even feeling the ground for heat.

A flight was scheduled to map hot spots and help determine the size of the fire Sunday afternoon.

Nowlin has monitored the containment lines throughout the fire, he said.

He reported that the Dolores-Norwood road and House Creek Road and campground would reopen Monday at 7 a.m. Dolores-Norwood Road (Forest Road 526) and the Boggy Draw trail system and Overlook Trail also will reopen at that time.

The House Creek Campground and boat dock were closed Wednesday morning, and six or seven campers were evacuated about 9:30 a.m.

Saturday: Containment rises

By Saturday afternoon, the fire had grown to 14,403 acres, up from 13,084 acres on Friday. Containment was raised to 45 percent, up from 30 percent.

The acreage estimate was based on GIS analysis and an infrared mapping flight about 1:11 p.m. Saturday. Much of the growth was attributed to planned firing operations designed to strengthen control lines, public information officer Hannah Welch said.

A rainstorm provided firefighters a long-awaited break Friday evening, dropping temperatures into the 60s and raising the relative humidity to about 65 percent by 9 p.m.

With the rain, came lightning.

The incident command team received reports of lightning strikes throughout the area but could not confirm whether any of them ignited fires, Welch said. Most of the lightning strikes seen from Cortez reportedly occurred between Cortez and Dolores, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The U.S. Forest Service also announced that local officials and incident management team members would hold a public meeting Sunday to update residents on the Plateau Fire and answer questions. The meeting was scheduled for 6 p.m. Sunday at the Dolores Community Center.

On Saturday evening, relative humidity was expected to reach as high as 80 percent. There also was a 30 percent chance of a wetting rain, which could significantly slow the fire.

On Saturday, crews continued to strengthen defense lines, using an indirect strategy of planned firing operations on east and west sides of Plateau Creek and the south side of Beaver Creek canyon.

In a briefing on Saturday morning, Rocky Mountain Team Black announced that fire crews made progress on burning a fire line on the southwestern section, Division Z, that extends from Forest Service Road 529 southwest toward McPhee Reservoir. .

Crews also made progress Saturday on securing the western side of the fire, Division D, and inserted a Hotshot crew to build a line at McPhee Reservoir and connect it to a secure line at FSR 523 on the north.

On the fire’s eastern side, crews built a line from the fire’s northernmost edge on The Glade Road eastward to connect with a line near Dolores-Norwood Road (FSR 526), thereby containing the fire in the northeast corner. As a result, public information officer Pam Wilson said Saturday, fire officials expected more interior burning in coming days, but without outward expansion.

Firefighters also planned to connect fire line along the Dolores-Norwood Road southward to the secure line on House Creek Road (FSR 528), which would complete the circle, resulting in 100 percent containment.

Also on Saturday, three structure protection teams from the Front Range to patrolled structures in the pre-evacuation.

Friday: Hold the lineOn Friday, crews took advantage of natural geographic features and roads, where they ignited planned burns in an attempt to hold indirect containment lines on the east and west sides of Plateau Creek and the south side of Beaver Creek canyon. Firefighters also tried to hold a line on the west side of the Dolores-Norwood Road north of its intersection with House Creek Road.

Planned firing operations expanded on its southwestern end, approaching to within 1.5 miles of House Creek Road. The fire was moving south and burning about 6 miles north of Dolores, down from 13 miles when it started July 22. The fire has not reached the paved House Creek Road, and crews planned to keep it north of that point and west of the Dolores-Norwood Road, Welch said Friday.

A more robust Type 2 incident management team composed of local, state and federal agencies – Rocky Mountain Team Black from Pueblo – assumed command of the fire. This summer, the team managed the Lake Christine Fire northwest of Basalt and the Spring Creek Fire west of La Veta. It is led by incident commander Shane Greer.

Available resources included 303 personnel, 16 engines, a brush mower, four helicopters and two single-engine air tankers. Two Type 1 Hotshot crews are at the site, but because of the steep, rocky terrain, have not become engaged in a direct firefight; on Friday and Saturday, they worked to strengthen containment lines.

A helibase and spike camp were set up outside the fire’s northwest corner, and the incident command center was set up in a field near the intersection of County Road W and the Dolores-Norwood Road.

No injuries have been reported, Welch said.

The fire had been largely contained in Plateau Canyon, but high winds pushed it over control lines Wednesday in Beaver Canyon.

“It was a witch’s brew of fire conditions that caused the fire to expand rapidly to the south,” said Rob Kopack, the former Type 3 public information officer for the fire.

Thursday: Fire spreads east, southOn Thursday, the fire continued its southern run, breaching management control lines at Beaver Canyon and at Forest Service Road 529, along the southern canyon rim. But Planning Section Chief Bruce Short said the fire that got past the road “was corralled,” and focused efforts to re-establish a FSR 529 control line appeared to be working.

The fire also spread east, along Dolores-Norwood Road but still north of House Creek Road.

Single-engine air tankers dropped fire retardant on the southern border of the fire, and helicopters dropped water. Fire crews have been reinforcing the FSR 529 line with hand crews and back-burning, Short said, and a night division has been patrolling it as well.

Back-burning efforts also were taking place on the fire side of the Dolores-Norwood Road to reduce fuels and strengthen that line in an attempt to slow the fire if it approached.

Short said fire behavior has been “fairly active but not extreme,” and ember showers were not expected.

Wednesday: Pre-evacuation startsPre-evacuation notices were issued Wednesday as the Plateau Fire grew to 9,000 acres and forced road closures that reach from the northern edge of Dolores to the southern tip of Lone Mesa State Park.

The closure encompasses an area bound roughly by McPhee Reservoir on the west, FSR 527 on the east, FSR 514 on the north and the San Juan National Forest boundary on the south, including Boggy Draw.

Evacuations were not mandatory.

With the latest closures, it was prohibited to be on any portion of Boggy Draw, Bean Canyon, McNeil and McPhee Overlook Trails or to access Italian Canyon or Maverick trails from the closed area. The eastern boundary comes within a mile of Colorado Highway 145.

According to the closure order, the Dolores-Norwood Road was closed from the forest boundary north of Dolores to Cottonwood Road, or FSR 532. Both House Creek and Dolores-Norwood roads would be used for fire operations, he said.

The House Creek Campground and boat dock were closed Wednesday morning, and six or seven campers were evacuated from the House Creek campground about 9:30 a.m., Short said. Portions of the eastern shoreline of McPhee Reservoir were in the process of being closed.

The fire reached 7,200 acres on Tuesday, and Kopack estimated that by 10 a.m. Wednesday, it approached 8,000 acres.

By afternoon, it was 9,000 acres and growing, said Gretchen Fitzgerald, of the San Juan National Forest.

“Low humidity and high erratic winds have been pushing the fire in all directions,” Fitzgerald said.

Tuesday: Fire jumps a key lineOn Tuesday, the fire made a significant run south down Plateau Creek Canyon past Beaver Creek and the northeastern tip of McPhee Reservoir. Overnight, strong winds pushed the fire farther south and east past Forest Service Road 529 but still north of House Creek Road (FSR 528).

Planning section chief Short said the fire’s southeastern growth past Beaver Creek was of “great concern.”

The bulk of the firefighting team was focused Wednesday on the south side of the fire, known as Divisions X and Z. The fire’s southwestern edge also was seeing active fire activity, Short said.

The fire has burned since July 22 about 13 miles northeast of Dolores. Containment was estimated at 15 percent on Monday, with full containment expected on Aug. 30.

Montezuma County has set up a call center for information about the fire. Anyone with questions may call 970-564-4998 or 970-564-4999. If it is an emergency, call 911.

The Sheriff’s Office set up an Emergency Operations Center. Contact Vicki Shaffer or Mike Pasquin.

Jim Mimiaga and Trent Stephens, of The Journal, contributed to this article.

Community meeting

A public meeting was planned for Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Dolores Community Center, 400 Riverside Ave.
Local and incident management team members planned to provide an update on the Plateau Fire and answer residents’ questions.