The Plateau Fire north of Dolores expanded aggressively this week, jumping control lines, expanding forest closures and triggering voluntary pre-evacuation orders for residents on the mesa north of town.
By Friday night, the fire had grown to 13,084 acres, up from 8,000 acres Tuesday, and containment was dropped to 30 percent, from 36 percent.
The acreage estimate was based on GIS analysis and an infrared mapping flight about 1:30 p.m., public information officer Hannah Welch said Friday night. Much of the growth was attributed to planned firing operations designed to strengthen control lines, Welch said.
A rainstorm provided firefighters a long-awaited break Friday evening, cooling 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.
A public meeting was planned for 6 p.m. Sunday at the Dolores Community Center. Local and incident management team members planned to provide an update on the Plateau Fire and answer residents’ questions.
On Saturday, crews planned to continue 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, extending from Forest Service Road 529 southwest toward McPhee Reservoir. The incident management team has secured the eastern section of the line and worked on Saturday to secure the section on FSR 529A that runs toward McPhee’s eastern shore.
Crews also worked Saturday to secure the northwestern side of the fire, Division D, and planned to insert a Hotshot crew to fortify build a line from where the fire’s edge meets McPhee Reservoir and connect it to a secured line on FSR 523. Farther north along FSR 523, crews worked to connect a secure fire line in Division D with a secure line in Division X, at Calf Creek.
On the fire’s northeast side, crews were using roads to burn fire lines south to connect with a secure fire line in Division W on Dolores-Norwood Road (FSR 526). The fire line along Dolores-Norwood Road would then connect to the secure line on House Creek Road (FSR 528), completing an area of 100 percent containment.
Three structure protection teams from the Front Range plan to patrol structures in the pre-evacuation area to assess their condition, then return to the fire lines, Welch said.
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 – has assumed command of the fire. This summer, the team has 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, if needed. 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, 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.
The incident command team, expected active fire activity in 1,000 to 2,400 acres on Friday. The weather was expected to be warm, with temperatures in the mid-80s through next week, with the potential for gusty and erratic winds.
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 slurry 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. Humidity was expected to rise to 25 percent in the coming days, up from 8 percent, and that will help moderate the fire, he said. But unpredictable outflow winds from forecast storms nearby and dry lightning could cause problems.
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.
With the latest closures, it is 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.
Also on Wednesday, the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office issued pre-evacuation notices for residents in an area that includes County Road V.6 and all areas northward along County Road 31 to House Creek Road. Evacuations were not mandatory.
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 there.
Jim Mimiaga and Trent Stephens, of The Journal, contributed to this article.