The Burro Fire grew to about 1,000 acres by Sunday afternoon in a remote area of the San Juan National Forest about 23 miles northeast of Dolores, and was expected to grow as dry conditions continue. Firefighters looked to engage the fire on its southern end.
The San Juan National Forest announced late Sunday that it plans close the forest to most entry this week to protect natural resources and public safety because of the fire danger.
The closure order is expected to be signed Tuesday and remain in effect until the forest receives sufficient moisture to improve conditions, the forest’s acting public affairs officer, Cam Hooley, said in a press release Sunday night.
“The closure order will prohibit entry into the San Juan National Forest, including entry by the general public, most administrative entry by Forest Service employees, and most uses authorized under Forest Service permits and contracts,” the press release said. Under the Stage 3 closure, campgrounds, day use areas, roads and trails will be closed, Wilderness areas, hiking, dispersed camping and other recreational activities will be prohibited. Exemptions might be granted on a case-by-case basis with a written authorization from the Forest Service, which would include specific requirements for fire prevention. Exemptions must be requested from the appropriate District Ranger (below). Federal, state, or local officers conducting specific duties are exempt.
The McPhee Reservoir boat ramp and marina will likely remain open, but no shoreline use will be allowed, the press release said.
According to Pat Seekins of the Dolores Ranger District, about 130 personnel were on-site, including a fire engine and Hotshot crews from Idaho, Nevada, Montana and Colorado, as well as a smokejumper crew from Idaho. Hand crews on Sunday focused their efforts near roads on the southern end of the fire, where the mixed conifer timber, including dead or fallen ponderosa pine and fir, was more dense. The steep, rugged terrain of the Bear Creek area has limited crews’ mobility. No injuries have been reported.
No new air drops of retardant were immediately planned, Seekins said, in part because they are largely ineffective on mixed conifer unless crews on the ground can work in tandem with them.
“We are working to establish an anchor point on the south end of the fire so we can engage,” Seekins said Saturday.
Firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service and several local fire departments responded to the wildfire about 4 p.m. Friday, about 5 miles south of Colorado Highway 145 along Bear Creek. By 6:30 p.m., the fire grew to 40 acres, said Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla, who was at the scene. Saturday night, the fire, which was burning in ponderosa pine and fir on a northeast-facing wall, was estimated at 493 acres using infrared mapping by a multi-mission aircraft. The fire rapidly moved downslope and southward into Bear Creek drainage, Padilla said, and by Sunday was burning on both sides of Bear Creek and spreading northeast toward the Colorado Trail and the Hermosa Creek Wilderness area. Containment was zero percent, and another multi-mission aircraft mapping flight was scheduled for Sunday night.
Seekins described the Burro Fire as a 100-year event, in which older growth is burned and replaced the following spring by new growth. He noted that wide stands of aspen in some areas have slowed the advance of the fire, whereas the older growth has fed it.
The Burro Fire incident command, currently under Jeff Thumm, is expected to transition to a Type 1 team at 6 a.m. Monday under Todd Pechota, incident commander of the 416 Fire north of Durango. A command center will be set up at the Dolores High School, Seekins said, and the new command might allow increased coordination of personnel and resources between the two fires.
The division will assume command of the fire at 6 a.m. Monday, said Shawn Bawden, a spokesman with the Type I team. “Because they are so close together, relatively speaking, a Type 1 team with that much experience can manage two fires at the same time,” Bawden said.
Could the two fires merge? Seekins said Sunday it was too early to tell, and too many variables involved, including wind direction, possible rain next week and firefighting efforts.
Roads and trails closedThe Colorado Trail was closed Saturday from Molas Pass to Junction Creek. The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office was conducting a sweep of the trail from the eastern side, while San Juan National Forest staff conducted a sweep from the west. “The sweeps of the trails are going well with no issues and minimal contacts with anyone,” the San Juan National Forest said in its evening update.
The Roaring Fork, Gold Run and Bear Creek trails, as well as Forest Road 435 and Hillside Road (Forest Service Road 436) were closed Friday. About noon Saturday, the San Juan National Forest expanded the closure area, shutting down a section bounded by the Divide Road (FSR 564), Roaring Fork Road (FSR 435), Scotch Creek Road (FSR 550), Windy Gap Area Road (FSR 350), Spruce Mill Road (FSR 351), and Upper Hay Camp Area Road (FSR 556).
The closure prohibits all public entry into the closed area, including campgrounds, trails, trailheads and National Forest System roads. It will remain in effect until July 31 or until rescinded, though it can be extended because of fire activity. Violations of the closure carry a penalty of at least $5,000 and six months in prison.
The existing order to close the Hermosa Creek watershed remains in effect.
Campers and hikers were evacuated on Friday and Saturday, and no structures or private land were threatened, according to the Dolores Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest.
San Juan National Forest technician James Godwin was stationed Saturday at the closed Forest Service Roads 561 and 350 near the Transfer Campground. Dispersed campers, including a large ATV group, were told to leave.
“Everyone has been compliant and understands it is for public safety,” Godwin said.
Jeremiah Frane’s family had to pack up and leave. “We are making the best of it,” he said.
Air quality, weather worsenOn Sunday, the National Weather Service in Grand Junction issued a dense smoke advisory for parts of Southwest Colorado from 9 p.m. Sunday through noon Monday. Smoke is expected to be heaviest in the U.S. Highway 550 corridor from Molas Pass through Durango and down to the New Mexico state line, as well as the U.S. Highway 160 corridor between Hesperus and Bayfield, extending east past Pagosa Springs. Visibility is expected to be a quarter mile or less.
The greatest risk for dense smoke will occur between midnight tonight and 8 a.m. Monday, the weather service said. On Saturday morning, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment issued an air quality advisory for portions of Southwest Colorado, including northeast Montezuma County, because of the smoke from the Burro and 416 fires. If visibility is less than 5 miles in your area, smoke has reached an unhealthy level, the press release said. Residents with heart disease or respiratory illnesses as well as the very young and the elderly, are most vulnerable.
The National Weather Service forecast for Sunday called for 8 percent humidity, 30 mph wind gusts, and temperatures in the mid-80s. A red flag alert was in effect because of the heightened risk of fire, and Stage 2 fire restrictions were in effect throughout the San Juan National Forest.
Crews look to engage fireOn Sunday, about 130 personnel were on-site, including Hotshot crews from Idaho, Nevada, Montana and Colorado, as well as a smokejumper crew from Idaho. Hand crews on Sunday focused their efforts near roads on the southern end of the fire, where the mixed conifer timber, including dead or fallen ponderosa pine and fir, was more dense.
Padilla told a Journal reporter at the scene that 30 to 40 firefighters were involved with the blaze on Friday. On Saturday, Seekins said on-site resources included two engines, eight smokejumpers and three hand crews, with two more hand crews on the way.
The Dolores Ranger District has been preparing for an active fire season, and said local firefighting resources were available throughout the weekend to fight the Burro Fire without pulling crews from other fires.
The Type 3 federal firefighting crew has not yet requested mutual aid from local fire districts at this point, said Mike Zion, Chief of the Dolores Fire Protection District. Zion also emphasized that because of severely dry conditions, it was important that local fire crews be held in reserve to respond to a new fire.
Hitting new wildfires quickly with air support dumping water and fire retardant is critical, Zion said, and the state has agreed to pay for the first 24 hours of planes and helicopters on any fire.
“The state recognizes how important it is to get control of these fire right away, and have given chiefs the authority to order air support if needed,” Zion said.
A San Juan National Forest press release at 8 p.m. Friday confirmed said that no resources were diverted from the 416 Fire north of Durango, 13 miles away on the opposite side of the Hermosa Creek watershed.
“The resources were available from local and pre-positioned out-of-the-area resources,” the press release from Cam Hooley said. Hooley added that fire retardant was ordered, and was applied to the fire in its early stages.
The cause of the Burro Fire has not been determined, but Padilla said the area had seen some lightning earlier in the week. The fire was reported by a medical helicopter, and is still under investigation.
Stephanie Alderton and Jim Mimiaga of The Journal contributed to this article.