HERMOSA – A huge plume of smoke billowed hundreds of feet into the blue sky Saturday afternoon near Hermosa, creating an ominous presence for residents who live in the Animas Valley north of Durango.
Some residents scrambled to pack personal belongings, deciding the time had come to evacuate. Several residents on the east side of U.S. Highway 550 watched nervously as a mushroom-like cloud – called a pyrocumulus cloud – formed above Hermosa Mountain. And a group of golfers at Dalton Ranch stopped playing the game to watch in awe.
On the west side of the highway, a La Plata County Sheriff’s deputy drove up and down County Road 203 telling residents it was time to evacuate. “The 416 Fire is moving your direction,” a deputy announced over a loud speaker. “This area is under mandatory evacuation.”
An additional 220 homes were ordered to evacuate at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, bringing the total to 1,309 evacuated houses and 1,043 houses on pre-evacuation, according to La Plata County government.
No homes had been lost as of Saturday night.
“The next couple of days, we’re going to have weather that’s very high fire danger weather, and usually that’s conducive to growth of the fire,” said Melissa Perez, spokeswoman for the Type I team.
The 9-day-old fire had burned 8,691 acres – or about the size of Durango city limits – as of Saturday morning, the most recent estimate available. The acreage surely increased after Saturday’s run. And residents should be prepared for more intense fire behavior in the days ahead, said Todd Pechota, incident commander of the Type I team that took command Saturday morning.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he told about 500 people at a community meeting Saturday at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.
Winds could advance the fire at 1 to 2 mph, he said. It is possible that spot fires – hot embers that fly out of the fire and start new fires – could occur a mile ahead of the main fire, he said.
Most of Saturday’s growth occurred in the Hermosa Creek area on the west side of the fire, but it also occurred on the southeast portion of the fire near U.S. Highway 550, and on the north end of the fire, where hand crews prepared structures in anticipation of the fire’s advance.
The incident commander commended the Type 2 and Type 3 teams that came in before he arrived. It took a “Herculean effort” to prevent the fire from jumping to the east side of Highway 550 in the immediate days after the fire broke out, Pechota said.
He said he has three priorities: firefighter and resident safety; protecting private properties on the south side, which faces the most immediate threat; and protecting properties on the north and east sides of the fire.
The pyrocumulus clouds that formed over the 416 Fire occur when heat combines with moisture created by the fire and condenses into a cloud, said Scott Stearns, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. The cloud typically lasts for several hours until the wildfire cools in the evenings. A pyrocumulus can create dry lighting strikes, but that occurs “somewhat rarely,” he said.
Highway 550 closed about 1:30 p.m. Saturday to help facilitate evacuations in the Hermosa area.
The highway is scheduled to reopen from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday with law enforcement pilot vehicles escorting traffic through the closed area, with the southern closure point on the south side of Cometti/Mead Lane.
The limited opening is subject to change at any moment, with the potential for rapidly changing fire behavior. County Road 203 is closed north of Trimble Lane.
Some La Plata County officials were caught by surprise at Saturday’s rapid fire growth.
La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said officials had talked informally Saturday morning about returning residents to their homes if things went well on the south end of the fire.
“And then the fire did what it did today,” he said, “and instead, we took some more people out.”
He thanked residents for their patience and cooperation with firefighters and asked resident to heed evacuation warnings for their own safety, but also to give firefighters the space they need to do their jobs.
“Some of you, this is your ninth day out of your home,” he said at the community meeting. “... Some of you, this is your third hour out of your home because we just had to evacuate today. ... We are doing our very best.”
The operation has grown to 813 fire personnel, and many more are expected in coming days, he said.
The fire was roughly 2½ miles from the Falls Creek subdivision, according to operations chief Rob Powell.
Officials from the city, county and National Forest Service will consider enacting Stage 3 fire restrictions early next week. Stage 3 restrictions would result in a closure of the San Juan National Forest, said Kara Chadwick, San Juan National Forest supervisor. It could also ban certain activities in unincorporated parts of the county.
La Plata County has declared a “state of local disaster” for at least 60 days, which activates emergency plans and authorizes the use of funds under those plans.
Regardless of Stage 3 restrictions, the San Juan National Forest announced Saturday it is closing a portion of the forest to public access as a result of the 416 Fire and the Burro Fire in Montezuma County.
Fire officials for the 416 Fire are monitoring the spread of the Burrow Fire, which started Friday about 13 miles west of the 416 Fire, and had grown to about 300 acres as of Saturday night with zero containment. An estimated 30 to 40 firefighters from Cortez, Dolores, Rico and the Bureau of Land Management are battling the blaze.
Weather forecasters are calling for several more dry, hot days across Southwest Colorado. The soonest possibility for rain will be Wednesday, said Jeff Colton, incident meteorologist. Summer monsoons typically begin mid-July but could begin sooner this summer, perhaps the last week of June, based on La Niña weather patterns, he said.
Weather forecasters issued a “red-flag warning” from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday in anticipation of dry, hot and windy conditions. The National Weather Service in Grand Junction also issued a dense smoke advisory from 9 p.m. Saturday until 10 a.m. Sunday.
San Juan Basin Public Health reported “unhealthy” levels of smoke Saturday morning, particularly along the Animas River from the burn area south to the New Mexico state line. And the situation was expected to be similar Sunday morning, according to a news release from the health department.
“Late Saturday night, the winds will calm, and smoke will again drain southward along the Animas River and produce moderate to heavy smoke Sunday morning in areas such as Hermosa, Durango and points south to the New Mexico state line,” the release said.
The smoke gradually decreases during the day as atmospheric mixing occurs.