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Firefighters prepare for the long haul in hot, dry conditions

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Tuesday, June 5, 2018 11:00 PM
Forest Service Road 576 is closed on Tuesday where County Road 201 ends near Hermosa as a result of the 416 Fire north of Durango.

HERMOSA – Firefighters hunkered down Tuesday and prepared for what could be a multi-week effort on the 416 Fire, with hot and dry conditions expected to persist for the foreseeable future.

“I don’t think this is going to be a fire that’s going to be out in a week,” said Vickie Russo, a spokeswoman for the Type II team fighting the fire, on Tuesday night.

An additional 252 homes were placed on pre-evacuation notice Tuesday afternoon in the Hermosa area. The order encompasses residences on the east side of U.S. Highway 550 between the highway and the Animas River, from Mead/Albrecht Lane north to Bakers Bridge, including the Ranch and Goodman subdivisions.

“We’re trying to be proactive rather than reactive,” Russo said. “That’s why they’re doing the pre-evacuation. It’s better for folks to be prepared. The fire was getting a little too close for comfort, so that’s why we took that precaution.”

Evacuations remain in place for 825 homes, and pre-evacuation notices are now effective for 1,273 homes.

Fire managers held two community briefings Tuesday to update residents about firefighting efforts.

Brad Pietruszka, Rocky Mountain Blue Team fire behavior specialist, told a crowd of about 300 at the La Plata County Fairgrounds that the team expects Thursday to be a bad day for fire activity.

“The good news is this fire is fighting the wind and the topography more than the Missionary Ridge Fire,” Pietruszka said.

This map shows the pre-evacuation and evacuation areas, as well as the 416 Fire’s footprint.
Courtesy of La Plata County

Wayne Ichiyasu, Rocky Mountain Blue Team operations section chief, said he expects the fire to burn for a while, but he doesn’t expect it to claim any structures.

He said aircraft are used only under certain circumstances and under proper conditions, and that is why people see aircraft sporadically.

“We address the fire with tactics that have a high probability of success. When we allow things to burn, we want them to burn so fuels are consumed,” he said.

Fire and emergency officials spoke to an overflowing auditorium at Animas Valley Elementary School in Hermosa. Mention of firefighters drew extended applause from the audience.

One resident expressed concern over the timeliness of updates about the fire.

“I’ve been a little frustrated with updates,” said Amanda Dolan, a resident in the Hermosa area.

Dolan, who lived in Longmont during the floods a few years ago, said she received reverse 911 calls about flooding. There have not been any reverse calls for the fire, she said.

On the other hand, Jason Kambach, who is on pre-evacuation notice, said he is happy with officials’ response to the fire. He said crews have come by his house at the base of Hermosa Mountain three times to check in.

Similarly, James Ranch employees John Ott and Gunther Ott did not have any complaints. They said wildfire is a natural occurrence, and they weren’t too concerned about the ranch.

A third community meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Silverton Town Hall, 1360 Greene St.

Highway 550 will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday with limited access depending on fire conditions, said Megan Graham, La Plata County spokeswoman.

Residents attended a community meeting Tuesday at Animas Valley Elementary School to receive updates about the 416 Fire. The meeting drew a full house, and dozens of people were unable to get in.
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

The 416 Fire, which started about 10 a.m. Friday 10 miles north of Durango, remained at 2,933 acres and 10 percent contained as of Tuesday evening. Fire officials planned to fly the fire Tuesday night and create a new map with an updated size estimate by Wednesday morning.

The weather is expected to be in the upper 80s and be dry for the remainder of the week, which poses a challenge to the firefighting effort, Russo said.

“Of course, we are really worried with the weather,” she said. “We had some active fire on the northern perimeter. It got hot today and that did not really help things. It’s going to continue to be hot, dry and unstable conditions as far as weather.”

Russo said she was not sure what the long-term strategy is for fighting the fire, but there was talk of letting the blaze burn, particularly on the western perimeter, to allow fire crews an opportunity to directly engage. Fire managers have also discussed scouting out different containment lines on the northern perimeter, she said.

“One of the biggest obstacles we have is the country that we’re in,” Russo said. “Right now, from where it is, especially on that western perimeter, it is not safe to put people in there. With the way the country is in Colorado, it’s not like Kansas, where you can just pick a flat spot and make a square and that’s our containment line.”

Travis Lipp, Rocky Mountain Blue Team operations section chief, describes the firefighting effort during a community meeting at Animas Valley Elementary School.
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

The Type II team has 598 firefighters assigned to the blaze, which had cost $2.6 million to suppress, according to the latest estimate available Tuesday night, she said. Firefighters spent Tuesday focusing on structure protection on the south side of the fire near Hermosa and continuing structure protection for homes along the 550 corridor, she said.

After a heavy air attack on the first two days of the fire, firefighters have used fewer air resources during the past few days. Air tankers were used heavily the first few days to prevent the fire from reaching homes, she said.

“Just because the big stuff isn’t flying doesn’t mean that we’re not still out there doing all that we can,” she said. “Sometimes, it just makes more sense to use a helicopter with a bucket because you have more control on where you’re going to put it as opposed to a slurry bomber. They have different strategies for air operations and it just depends on what is going on with the fire.”

Russo said some resources have been pulled away to fight other fires.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which suspended coal-fired train rides until Sunday, announced Tuesday it will extend the suspension of service until at least June 17 because of the 416 Fire and the region’s fire-prone conditions. The D&SNG will also cancel its family oriented T-Rex Express train ride scheduled for June 16-17 and June 23-24. Limited diesel locomotive train service may be available later this month if it is deemed safe.

Herald Staff Writers Ryan Simonovich and Patrick Armijo contributed to this report.

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