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Together, we face 416 aftermath

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Friday, July 6, 2018 11:46 PM
Gwen Lachelt, La PLata County Commissioner

Five weeks ago on June 1, when the 416 Fire began, it was immediately clear that our community was facing a major challenge that would not be quickly or easily resolved.

The extremely dry conditions, combined with high winds and temperatures, meant the fire grew rapidly and after more than a month, the 416 Fire has burned more than 53,000 acres in La Plata County, and we do not expect that the fire will be out anytime soon.

The impacts our community has endured from this fire are significant and far-reaching, but so has been the community response.

The moment the fire was reported, our local fire teams sprang into action and in the initial attack phase did miraculous work keeping the 416 Fire from consuming residences and crossing U.S. Highway 550 to the east. Local fire districts worked together with our local Type 3 Interagency Incident Management Team for these first critical hours and days.

These were our friends and neighbors out battling massive flames that were traveling at an alarming pace in extreme conditions – and they were stunningly successful in protecting homes and critical infrastructure. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

That fine work has continued through the three national teams that have arrived in La Plata County to attack and manage the 416 Fire. Beginning with the Rocky Mountain Type II Incident Management Team Blue, followed by Todd Pechota’s Rocky Mountain Type I Team, and now the National Incident Management Organization led by Joe Reinarz, these groups have steadfastly and effectively worked the 416 Fire and, despite 53,000 acres burned, no structures have been lost. More importantly, no injuries have been reported. We are so appreciative of their fine work and recognize our good fortune.

Other communities have not been so lucky, and our hearts go out to the folks in Costilla and Huerfano counties, where the North Spring Fire has burned more than 94,000 acres in just one week, taking more than 100 structures in its path.

Still, the 416 Fire has had significant impacts on our community. Many of you were displaced from your homes. Many others were laid off from jobs. Businesses had to suspend operations. Visitors canceled trips to the area, affecting sales for our shops, hotels and restaurants. Smoke has filled the air and darkened the sky.

We have all been affected by the 416 Fire, and many in our community have been severely impacted and will be for some time to come.

The Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado has a Community Emergency Relief Fund to assist folks who have had fire-related financial challenges. You can apply for bridge assistance at www.swcoda.org. Those who have been laid off from a job may also qualify for unemployment benefits. Visit https://myui.coworkforce.com/welcome to apply.

These are, of course, temporary fixes to what for many may be a long-term challenge resulting from the 416 Fire – an event that conditions gave us all good reason to anticipate.

Southwest Colorado has been in an “exceptional drought” state since the spring, following a dismal snow season and very dry fall. As La Plata County Emergency Manager Butch Knowlton has said many times, “This is a different kind of dry.”

The Board of County Commissioners enacted Stage 1 fire restrictions on May 1 – in 2017 we did so in June – and the morning that the 416 Fire started, Stage 2 fire restrictions went into effect. One week later, we adopted Stage 3 fire restrictions. These are measures the county rarely takes, but conditions are such that all possible precautions are necessary.

We can expect the 416 Fire to be with us for quite some time, and we are thankful for the teams dedicated to managing its progress to keep our homes and businesses safe. Going forward, our community must be vigilant to the ongoing fire danger and responsive to the impacts our friends and neighbors are experiencing from the 416 Fire.

We are strong together, as we’ve seen from the various challenges La Plata County has faced over the years; the 416 Fire response from within our community and far beyond it is both inspiring and reassuring.

Gwen Lachelt is chair of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at (970) 382-6219.

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