Quick action by firefighters early Monday morning stopped a potentially catastrophic human-caused fire on Florida Road (County Road 240).
Upper Pine River Fire Protection District Chief Bruce Evans said a fire was reported around 4 a.m. at the entrance of the El Gato subdivision, about 13 miles northeast of Durango and across from the Los Ranchitos neighborhood.
On the way to the scene, firefighters noticed a man with a backpack and his dog walking on the road.
“They thought it was unusual someone was out on the road at 4 o’clock in the morning,” Evans said.
Because the fire was reported early and crews were able to get to the scene quickly, the fire was contained to an approximate 60-by-40 foot area.
Evans said if the fire had spread and jumped the road, hundreds of homes could have been threatened.
“Had it been 3 o’clock in the afternoon with some wind like yesterday (Sunday), it would have taken off,” he said. “And we’re already stretched so thin (with the 416 and Burro fires), it wouldn’t have been easy to deal with.”
As crews were surveying the site of the fire, they found what looked like a makeshift campsite on the right side of Florida Road with numerous cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey.
Evans said the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office questioned the man who was on the road. Evans was not sure if the man had been ticketed.
La Plata County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Chris Burke said officers were unable to tie the man to the scene, so no ticket was written.
“We couldn’t write a citation because we couldn’t prove that he was the one that started it,” Burke said.
Evans said firefighters believe the fire was started by a cigarette.
“Obviously someone violating burn ban, smoking and discarding butts in the brush, and it just took off,” he said. “He’s innocent until proven guilty, but that’s a lot of coincidence. Who’s out walking on the road at 4 a.m. by themselves?”
Southwest Colorado is currently in Stage 2 fire restrictions, which limits smoking cigarettes to homes and cars.