HERMOSA – Hundreds of residents were forced to pack their belongings and leave their homes for an unknown amount of time Friday in the face of a fast-moving wildfire burning 10 miles north of Durango.
The 416 Fire burned more than 1,100 acres as of Friday night. About 825 homes were evacuated, but no homes had burned.
“It’s all so crazy,” said Elizabeth Danch, who lives in the Rockwood area and was under an evacuation notice. “Honestly, it just happened so quick.”
Danch, a night nurse, said she saw smoke outside her window shortly after waking up around 10 a.m. She later received a call informing her that her home was under a pre-evacuation notice, and, a short time later, full evacuation.
“We’re doing OK,” she said Friday afternoon. “All our thoughts and prayers are with our firefighters, hot shots and deputies, and our thoughts and prayers should be with them right now. But you know, this is where we live, and we knew that and that’s why we did a lot of fire mitigation, and we were ready.”
Residents were advised to grab their medications, clothing, animals, important documents, among other necessary items. Much of Southwest Colorado is an “exceptional drought” – the most serious drought category – so many residents were aware of the potential danger this year for wildfire.
Danch said she was prepared. She even had cat carriers ready for her animals.
As is often the case during disaster situations, residents came together to help one another.
Danch said her neighbor came to make sure she was awake and aware of the fire, because they know she works at night.
“We just have a wonderful sense of community,” she said. “Everyone came together looking out for each other and checking in on neighbors. We’re just blessed to have people like that.”
Danch’s son, Keaton Cameron, was working on top of Electra Lake’s cliff when he saw the early stages of the fire. Cameron said he rushed down to touch base with his family.
“When we found out we were actually getting evacuated, we just grabbed our pets and some family photos,” Cameron said.
Cameron said he isn’t surprised by the wildfire, but he is surprised that it struck this early during the year.
Several cars lined up at a roadblock on U.S. Highway 550 and County Road 250 to wait out the fire. Many hoped for a chance to grab personal belongings from their homes before being evacuated.
James Johnson was en route to The Lodge at Tamarron, where his daughter was scheduled to be married Saturday morning. But he was stopped at a roadbock and prohibited from going to the lodge.
The groom, Matt Spanjers, made it to the resort, but his fiancée, Vanessa Johnson, was stuck in Durango and began scrambling to find a backup plan.
They have 350 out-of-town guests coming for the wedding, James Johnson said.
“It was crazy.” he said. “We don’t know who’s where.”
Johnson was relieved when Elks Lodge in Durango came to the rescue and agreed to host the wedding on Saturday.
“We’re relieved,” Johnson said. “But now there’s a lot of work to do to get ready on short notice.”
Gretchen Bode, who lives in Electra Lakes Estates, was stopped at a roadblock and felt stressed out that she couldn’t get back to her home, which was on pre-evacuation notice. She wanted to help her husband, mother-in-law and 8-month-old child pack belongings for the evacuation.
“I’m trying to tell him what to pack, but it’s hard to do it when you’re not there,” she said. “I don’t think it’s (my house) close enough to be affected, but I’m just upset, obviously. I just wish I could get up there.”
Gretchen Spitler, another Rockwood resident, was home when she saw the fire start. Spitler said she and her family, like Danch and Cameron, were prepared.
“We have put a plan in place, our cars have been loaded,” Spitler said. “They said evacuate, and we were ready to go.
“I think everybody is helping everybody right now.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Matt Spanjers’ last name.