Initial response to 416 Fire was critical to protecting homes

Friday, July 13, 2018 8:53 PM
Chris Tipton, fire management officer with the Columbine Forest District, coordinates firefighting efforts during the first hours of the 416 Fire.
Randy Black, deputy chief of the Durango Fire Protection District, goes door to door making sure everyone has evacuated their residences in the Glacier Club-Tamarron area after a mandatory evacuation was ordered just hours after the start of the 416 Fire.
Butch Knowlton, director of the La Plata County Office of Emergency Management, works from his truck talking with other area officials during the first hours of the 416 Fire.
Chris Tipton, center, fire management officer with the Columbine Forest District, talks with county and other area officials during the first hours of the 416 Fire.

Chris Tipton, a fire management officer with the Columbine Forest District, spent the morning of June 1 at a firefighting briefing at Vallecito Lake discussing available firefighting resources and plans for an initial attack should a wildfire break out in the region.

After the briefing, he was driving south on County Road 501 toward Bayfield when he received a call from dispatch about 10 a.m. notifying him of a wildfire that broke out near Mitchell Lakes north of Durango.

He immediately made calls to move U.S. Forest Service resources to the scene while heading there himself to assess the situation. He made a call to Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty to coordinate responses. He knew the area was facing an extreme drought, and on that particular day, weather conditions presented dangerous fire conditions.

When Tipton reached Elmore’s Corner and caught his first glimpse of the blaze, his fears were realized. The height and color of the smoke were a sure sign the fire had found volatile fuels and was well established. This one was going to take off.

“I realized pretty quickly that we had an escalating incident and were going to need to send more stuff,” he said.

While continuing to drive toward the fire, Tipton requested four large air tankers, six helicopters, two hotshot crews and all initial attack forces the San Juan National Forest could muster.

“His foresight really helped this thing from getting out of hand by front-loading all of those resources,” said Randy Black, deputy chief for the Durango Fire Protection District. “Being able to get that many resources up there on a short basis was the reason we were able to keep it on that side of the road.”

BreakoutThe 416 Fire started near the railroad tracks west of the Meadowridge subdivision, about 10 miles north of Durango, and quickly moved north up the Hermosa Cliffs. The fire’s origin was surrounded by light fuels. Winds out of the southwest fanned the flames, pushing them up a hillside. As it grew in size, it found heavier fuels and continued to grow.

A pop car and a water tanker owned by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad were first on scene. Members of the Meadowridge subdivision also aided in the initial attack. A helicopter leased by the railroad arrived soon after to drop buckets of water to try to stifle the blaze.

Jeff Harris, a battalion chief with the Durango Fire Protection District, arrived about 15 minutes after the initial call to dispatch and was the first firefighter on scene. When he first arrived, the fire was about a half acre. After a quick assessment, he relayed back to dispatch that the fire was racing up the hill and they wouldn’t be able to catch it.

“It was doubling in size every couple of minutes,” Harris said. “It moved very, very quickly. It was pretty apparent that this thing was growing beyond our ability to do anything about it. It’s not something we could have stretched any kind of lines to and gotten any kind of containment.”

Once the call from Harris was relayed, Black went to the scene of the fire to conduct operations, and Doughty went to the La Plata County Emergency Operations Center to help coordinate operations.

Knowing that the fire was out of reach, Harris pulled his firefighters back and immediately assigned them to protect homes in the Meadowridge subdivision. At that point, there wasn’t much else to do on the ground as aircraft began to drop water on the fire.

“Really, it was an air show,” Harris said. “There were a dozen aircraft on scene, and not a lot of work to be done on the ground at that point because of accessibility issues and the rate of spread of the fire.”

The federal aviation arrived nearly 20 minutes after Harris arrived. During wildfire season, different fires compete for available air resources, but because the 416 Fire broke out earlier than other fires, there wasn’t much competition.

Federal resources won’t share air space with other helicopters, so once the aircraft arrived, the railroad helicopter flew around Mitchell Lakes to ensure no hikers, campers or cattle were in the path of the advancing fire, Harris said.

EvacuationsTipton arrived on scene about 11 a.m. Without much debate, he determined the fire threatened forest land and assumed command of the fire. He quickly initiated three priorities for the fire: keep flames west of U.S. Highway 550, protect homes on the east side of the highway and start an anchor point to work toward containment.

“Those were the things we could achieve during that first operational period,” Tipton said.

Tipton told crews to be prepared to battle the fire for the rest of the day, and to prepare for a difficult time containing it.

“The fire started early morning,” Tipton said. “That means it has all day. As it gets hotter and drier and windier throughout the entire day, the harder the firefight is. The day really does fly by and there’s no real down time.”

Typically, a federal Type III firefighting management team will take at least 24 hours to assemble and arrive on scene. Because Tipton assumed command of the fire and called in federal resources, the equivalent of a Type III team was on scene two hours after the fire started.

As air resources hammered the fire from above, crews scrambled to protect homes in the Rockwood, Tamarron and Glacier Club subdivisions on the east side of Highway 550.

Tipton worked with local law enforcement officials to create “trigger points,” or points where if the fire reached certain locations, evacuations would be ordered. The fire reached the first trigger point at 1:52 p.m., and Rockwood subdivision was evacuated. The fire passed the second trigger point at 3:20 p.m., when Tamarron and the Glacier Club were evacuated.

“That went very smoothly and very quickly,” Tipton said.

Protecting homesWith residents out of their homes, the fight shifted to keeping the fire west of the highway. Harris was assigned to lead the structure protection on the east side of the highway and staged engine crews in strategic locations to douse spot fires should they jump the highway.

The conditions were extremely concerning to fire management. Wind had begun to pick up, and the dark smoke column indicated extreme fire behavior in thick fuels on a ridgeline, which was several hundred feet in elevation above the at-risk subdivisions.

Hot embers can travel up to a mile in front of the main fire, starting spot fires.

“At that point, I didn’t see a scenario where it wouldn’t cross the highway,” Harris said.

Harris directed an engine crew to station itself in the Rockwood subdivision as a precautionary measure. A spot fire started near the entrance of the subdivision, which crew members quickly doused.

“If we didn’t have units over in the Rockwood area watching, we would have missed it,” Black said. “If that thing would have gotten hold and run through there, it would have been a completely different fire.”

A second spot fire occurred about 15 minutes later near the subdivision. In total, Harris believes five spot fires occurred in Rockwood and two occurred at the Glacier Club. One fire was reportedly within 100 yards of homes in one of the subdivisions.

“The first one, we’re like, ‘OK, that’s one. We caught it,’” said Black, who worked as an agency liaison throughout the day. “Then it was two, and then it was three, and then it was four and then it was five. That many spots coming across the highway. ... It just takes one. We’re one spot fire away from this thing being a disaster and losing houses.”

Ground crews were aided by aircraft, which was crucial to keeping the fire from jumping the highway. Tipton instructed pilots to drop water primarily on the east side of the blaze to prevent it from crossing the highway, not to spend time battling the western portion of the fire, which spread into the Hermosa Creek Wilderness.

“It was a good old-fashioned firefight,” Tipton said. “Once the fire was established and made its push up the hill, we were literally on the edge of losing the highway for the better part of six-plus hours.”

Tipton said the fire died down early that evening. Crews had successfully extinguished seven spot fires and hadn’t lost a single structure and reported zero injuries.

Cross-agency planning and training before wildfire season aided in communications. Agencies had also learned from past experiences battling fires in the area.

“I’ve been with the department for 28 years,” Black said. “I’ve been on the Black Ridge Fire in 1994, Black Ridge 2004, Missionary Ridge (2002) and a lot of the fires in the area. ... I’ve never had one work this smooth.”

Tipton said it’s difficult to consider the first day a success because crews were unable to catch the fire. But he looks back and says firefighters did everything they could.

“I consider what we did a tremendous success,” he said. “We didn’t lose a structure, nobody was injured. Knowing that we couldn’t catch the fire, I think we did it right. I’m not sure I would have done anything different.”