The Loading Pen Fire near Stoner in the Dolores River Valley remained at 42 acres Friday and was 90% contained, fire officials said, and more than half the firefighters who have been working on it were being released today.
Released firefighters will either return home or be reassigned to other fires.
About 40 firefighters will remain at the scene to put out hot spots and monitor fire lines Saturday. Those crews will also continue to cut down damaged trees that either pose a threat to the fire lines, or to public or firefighter safety. Helicopters are available in the area to support the firefighters on the ground, if needed, the San Juan National Forest Service said in a news release.
The Incident Management Team that has been overseeing the effort this week will turn the fire back to local control on Saturday morning.
“We appreciate the cooperation of the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office and local land owners who helped make our job easier,” said outgoing Incident Commander Brad Pietruszka.
The fire is burning in thick timber on the steep hillside of Haycamp Mesa.
Thirty firefighters worked through Wednesday night to contain two spot fires, which were discovered around 10:30 p.m. The fires, less than a quarter-acre, were contained within two hours.
Crews then worked through the night to secure lines around the main fire and the spot fires. A spot fire is caused when embers float over the fire line and find new fuel sources.
A Chinook, twin-rotor helicopter was again used for a short time Thursday morning to drop water on remaining hot spots.
Because firefighters have been able to increase containment on this fire, resources will be released to work on other fires. A Type 3 Incident Management Team has been managing the Loading Pen Fire since Monday and plans to return control to local resources on Saturday morning. About 40 people will continue to work the fire.
On Wednesday, a control line at the top end of the fire held, and firefighters made progress along the flanks, fire officials said.
The fire was started by lightning June 13, and is being fought with a full suppression strategy. It is visible from Colorado Highway 145.
There were 109 firefighters battling the blaze, including the San Juan Hotshots and Tatanka Hotshots. Planes and helicopters have been dropping water and retardant. A bulldozer and fire engines are also on scene.
Firefighters are working against strong winds on steep terrain, officials said, and are making progress establishing control lines from a meadow along the river to the top of the canyon rim.
“This fire has continued to be active, even through the last couple nights,” said Incident Commander Brad Pietruszka, “but the crews have done an excellent job trying to get around it.”
As of 5 p.m., the top control line of the fire was holding, fire dispatch reported. Crews on the ground and in the air are monitoring for spot fires so they can be suppressed. Contingency plans are being developed should the fire escape the current lines.
A twin-rotor Chinook helicopter assisted the firefighters on the ground by dropping water on the “green” side of the fire lines. This action helps prevent any embers that may float over the line from getting established in new fuel.
To better secure existing control lines, firefighters were carefully applying fire along control lines. “Burnouts” strengthen the lines by eliminating the fuel between the line and the naturally advancing wildfire.
The burnouts are small in size, less than five acres, but have a big impact on firefighters’ ability to contain the fire.
Two small “spot” fires, of less than one quarter acre in size, were also discovered around 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night. A spot fire is caused when an ember floats over the fire line and lands a receptive, unburned area.
The 20-person San Juan Interagency Hotshot Crew and the 10-person Skyway Wildland Fire Module, quickly surrounded and contained the two small fires.
Crews have been working the past several days to bring the fire down a steep hillside. There have prepared fire lines along a meadow at the bottom of that hill.
Tuesday night, the fire crossed control lines. Tree ignition known as “torching” was observed about 6 a.m. Wednesday and remained active in a few pockets, according to Inciweb.
Fire behavior in mixed conifer and aspen includes isolated torching, creeping and backing fire.
A containment anchor point has been established on the northern edge of the fire near the bottom of the hillside. Hotshot crews were working in tandem, chopping in fire line uphill on the eastern and western flanks.
“The firefighters have just done a tremendous job cutting and digging line up a very steep slope,” says Incident Commander Tracy Milakovic, “and all that hard work has been paying off.”
A red flag warning for critical fire weather was issued for Wednesday. Critically low humidities overnight have resulted in fire growth. Conditions are predicted to remain the same in the short term.
A local, Type 3 Incident Management Team is coordinating the firefighting effort. Smoke will continue to be visible, especially from Colorado Highway 145, and smoke is settling in the valley. Authorities request that drivers do not stop to watch fire activity on the narrow road.
The relatively large group of 109 firefighters was deployed because the steep, dense terrain limits access for fire engines and other equipment, said San Juan Forest public information officer Esther Godson. Ground crews are supported by an air attack in the remote area.
“With the terrain conditions the way they are, having sufficient crews to hike up and put in control lines is the best access,” she said.
Gusty winds, dry fuels, low humidity and the potential for the fire to spread to the vast surrounding forest made full suppression a priority for the Loading Pen Fire. The wildfire is about 8 miles southwest of the 2018 Burro Fire burn scar.