The Lightner Creek Fire is expected to grow Thursday as dry weather and high winds persist in the region, and it was declared a disaster emergency by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Although most residents in Durango awoke Thursday to relatively clear skies and the appearance the fire had died down, firefighters are bracing for another tough day, according to Scot Davis, public information officer for the Durango Interagency Command.
Colorado’s multi-mission aircraft has been deployed to assess the size of the fire, which has grown to more than 250 acres.
The governor’s declaration includes authorization for the Colorado National Guard to provide support if requested.
Also, the Red Cross will move the evacuation center to Escalante Middle School Thursday afternoon, and the La Plata County Fairgrounds is expected to be used for firefighter operations.
Aerial firefighting operations were interrupted for up to an hour Wednesday evening and two aircraft had to jettison fire retardant uselessly after at least one drone was reported in the area,
Air operations were grounded around sunset because drones made it unsafe for pilots to fly, said Chris Tipton, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service. Flying drones in a fire operations area is a federal crime.
Pilots can’t see drones and they can get into a plane’s engine or go through the windshield and harm the pilot, he said.
The planes were ready to drop retardant on the section of the fire moving toward Durango when they had to be grounded, he said.
But instead, two planes had to jettison about 1,600 gallons of retardant worth between $8,000 and $10,000. One plane dropped it too high above the fire to do any good and another plane dropped it near the airport, he said.
The Durango Police Department spoke with two people flying drones over the fire Wednesday night, La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham said.
Evan Niccum was flying a drone in the Rockridge area and boy under 18 was flying a second drone; others also were reported in the area, she said.
The police turned the information about the pilots over to the U.S. Forest Service, she said.
Planes started dropping retardant on the fire around 8 a.m. Thursday morning and plan to fly all day, Tipton said. There are five single engine air tankers, two large air tankers, one aerial supervision module, one air attack airplane and one helicopter.
Thursday is a critical day to fight the fire from the air before more ground resources arrive.
“We’re utilizing the air resources to check the fire,” he said.
Davis said it’s typical fire behavior for a fire to “lay down overnight” as temperatures and winds drop, and humidity increases. But as temperatures and winds increase throughout the day, so does the fire.
“We’re expecting it to grow, but what it does remains to be seen,” Davis said around 8:30 a.m. “We have no idea its direction or movement.”
A red flag warning is in effect until 8 p.m. for most of western Colorado and eastern Utah, including the Durango area. The National Weather Service predicts winds of 10 to 20 mph, with gusts up to 35 mph in the afternoon.
The fire was reported about 4 p.m. Wednesday in the 1200 block of Lightner Creek Road, and quickly consumed 50 acres on the west side of the canyon a couple miles west of Durango. It is believed to have started at a house at 1255 Lightner Creek Road. Neighbors reported some loud booms and said the house was destroyed before firefighters arrived 20-30 minutes later.
A second “spot fire” – a term for a fire ignited outside the original burn area, usually due to a windborne ember – started on the east side of Lightner Creek Road and worked its way toward Perins Peak.
As of Thursday morning, the spot fire was working its way up the west side of Perins Peak, Davis said.
The fire is zero percent contained, Davis said.
In a morning briefing, officials said as of 8 a.m. no new structures are threatened, and there have been no injuries or fatalities.
Davis said evacuations remain in effect for residents on county roads 206, 207 and 208, affecting some 170 homes. The same goes for a pre-evacuation notice for the Rockridge subdivision, he said.
Davis said there’s no timeline for when the evacuations and road closures may be lifted. The American Red Cross set up a shelter at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.
Nineteen people spent the night in the evacuation center, said Red Cross volunteer Greg Roswell.
Arizona residents Mike and Sue Spahle were among those who stayed in the shelter. They were camping at the Lightner Creek Campground when the fire started and thought it would be contained so they came into town for dinner and couldn’t get back in. They left behind a small trailer, tent and other camping equipment.
“If it goes up in flames, so be it. We don’t have anything too valuable,” Mike Spahle said.
But they did plan to wait to see if they could retrieve their equipment.
About 50 personnel with seven firefighting apparatuses will work the blaze Thursday, Davis said. Air support, including a helicopter and air tankers, will be part of that effort.
Davis said since there is only one way in and out of the burn area – if the fire starts rolling north in the County Road 207/208 area, ground crews would have to pull back and rely on air operations.
Durango Fire Protection District, La Plata County Emergency Management, Los Pinos, Upper Pine, Southern Ute Agency Fire Management, Ute Mountain Ute Agency, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control are all helping to fight the fire, he said.
Staff writers Mary Shinn, Jonathan Romeo, Mia Rupani and Alex Semadeni contributed to this report.