Little Sand Fire still burns; 40% contained

Rain in forecast cause for optimism

As other wildfires in Southwest Colorado wind down, the Little Sand Fire burns on stubbornly in forested areas between Pagosa Springs and Vallecito Reservoir. Containment was 40 percent Tuesday, but if wetter forecasts pan out, officials say that number could rise significantly during the next week.

The fire was ignited by lightning May 13 – the first major blaze of the season – and has since grown to 24,500 acres while outlasting challengers like the Weber, State Line and Lightner Creek fires.

And with full containment achieved Saturday on the 87,000 acre High Park Fire near Fort Collins, Little Sand is now state’s largest active fire.

Tinder-dry conditions, combined with steep and inaccessible terrain, have thus far prevented firefighting crews from making inroads. However, with difficult topography comes one silver lining: fewer homes threatened. By contrast, the Waldo Canyon Fire has burned less acreage, but destroyed 346 homes stemming from its proximity to Colorado Springs.

In the Wemuniche Valley, Poma Ranch remains evacuated, but has lost no cabins or outbuildings to the flames. Although structure protection efforts are ongoing, the worst appears over.

“We’re seeing how fast we can lift the evacuation notices. It’ll be days, not weeks,” said information officer Don Ferguson. “I know Poma Ranch is eager to move in and get back in business.”

As of Tuesday, 202 personnel were on the ground and receiving help from four helicopters, nine fire engines and one bulldozer.

The only direction in which flames are presently spreading is southwest, near the convergence of First Fork Creek and the Piedra River. Ferguson said those water boundaries, plus an old prescribed burn area, should help stall further advances.

Crews have also started to “rehabilitate” parts of the forest that were uprooted during earlier containment efforts. The work aims to prevent future erosion problems and keep runoff water away from access roads.

Light to moderate rains fell on a “large portion” of the fire Monday, and periodic thunderstorms are expected during the next week. Ferguson is hoping they differ from last week’s storms, which brought abundant lightning strikes but minimal precipitation.

“(Thunderstorms) are a mixed bag,” he said. “But if the forecasts are true, we’re supposed to get wetting rains – over one-quarter inch – letting moisture get through to the forest floor.”

Little Sand firefighting costs have totaled $6.74 million to date.

lgroskopf@durangoherald.com