UPDATE 7:45 p.m.
The Lightner Creek Fire grew to about 362 acres and was 20 percent contained by Thursday night.
The state’s multimission aircraft mapped the fire twice, revealing that the fire did not expand between 12:30 and 4:30 p.m., said Scot Davis, public information officer for the Durango Interagency Command. Reports of the fire’s expansion during the afternoon were based on delayed information, he said.
Firefighters did most of the containment work on the blaze west County Road 207 because that was the place it was most likely to jump U.S. Highway 160.
A bulldozer cut a fire break around the western side of the blaze, and a fire break was built by hand on the north side of the fire. A fire hose was laid on the south side of the fire from the bottom of Lightner Creek to the top of the butte as well.
A controlled burn on the edge of the fire to keep it from U.S. Highway 160 is also planned.
The outlook was positive following a 6 p.m. staff meeting for those managing the fire, he said.
“The next 24 to 48 hours, we’ll see some good solid improvement,” Davis said.
UPDATE 4:30 p.m.
The Lightner Creek Fire had increased to about 360 acres by about 4:30 p.m., Scot Davis, public information officer for the Durango Interagency Command.
Three federal firefighting crews, of 20 people each, were expected to arrive Thursday night, bringing the total number of firefighters to 120, he said.
The police were escorting some evacuated residents past the barricade near Westwood Apartments on County Road 206 Thursday to retrieve belongings.
Suzanne Garcia, who lives at the end of County Road 206 returned to her home Thursday morning and said it was surreal to hear the planes right over her house. She was in Alamosa when the fire started and her daughters called her. Garcia lives with her daughter Julia, 18, and her older daughter Claudia, 21, has her own home.
“As a mom, when you’re three hours away and get a call like that I can’t begin to tell you how it makes you feel. They did an incredible job of getting the animals and the family heirlooms out,” she said. “I have to hand it to them, because for teenagers, they got what matters. Not shoes and makeup.”
Garcia said the police officers did a remarkable job keeping everyone calm and organized, and friends have made their homes available to her family.
After Garcia visited her home she stayed near the barricade on County Road 206 watching the fire most of the day.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do tonight. I probably will stay here most of the night and just watch the fire burn,” she said,
UPDATE 4 p.m.
Three federal crews should arrive Thursday to help fight the Lightner Creek Fire, Scot Davis, public information officer for the Durango Interagency Command.
The crews have not started working yet, he said.
The emphasis throughout the day has been on securing safe routes to the fire on County Road 207 and 208 and they have stayed open, he said.
However, firefighters are concerned about the fire jumping U.S. Highway 160 to the south because it is in a canyon and threatening homes in Rafter J and surrounding subdivisions, he said.
Healthy Hounds and Fat Cats on U.S. Highway 160 expected to evacuate some pets Thursday evening, if the staff could not reach their owners to pick them up, owner LeeAnn Craig said.
Pets will be taken to Willow Tree Kennels on County Road 203.
The shop is not under a pre-evacuation order but she decided to be overly cautious and move the animals.
UPDATE 3:30 p.m.
In addition to Rafter J, pre-evacuation notices went out Thursday to Morningstar subdivision, Castle Ridge Estates, West Fork Estates, La Plata Vista Estates, King Mountain Estates and individual homes in the vicinity
The rough boundary to the north was U.S. Highway 160. The rough eastern and southern boundary is Wildcat Canyon Road (County Road 141). The pre-evacuation notice did not effect Lake Durango or Shenandoah, La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham said.
Those who received pre-evacuation notices and need help preparing to leave their homes because of health needs can call the county hotline to make arrangements at 385-8700.
Evacuees who need to enter evacuated areas on County Roads 206, 207 and 208 to retrieve pets, livestock or RVs from the Lightner Creek Campground can call the hotline to schedule an escorted visit. Scheduling will be dependent on fire conditions, and the trips will be brief.
There were 32 RVs in the campground, Graham said.
Firefighters expect the Lightner Creek Fire to grow much faster this afternoon beginning around 4 p.m. when the wind is expected to pick up, said Scot Davis, public information officer for the Durango Interagency Command.
Staff have not been able to investigate the source of the Lightner Creek Fire, 1255 Lighter Creek Road, because the ground is too hot, he said.
Mail will not be delivered to about 1,200 addresses Thursday because of the Lightner Creek Fire.
Carriers will not visit county roads 206, 207 and 208, which are evacuated. They also will not visit Rafter J, Junction Creek Road, Crestview or Rockridge, on the west edge of Durango.
“I didn’t want to put anybody at risk,” Durango Post Master Victoria Delsid said.
Delsid consulted with the fire department before deciding on the areas that would have no mail service.
Mail for these addresses will be held at the Post Office at 222. W 8th St. Impacted customers should bring identification to the retail window to receive their mail.
Future delivery decisions will be made after consulting with local emergency managers.
UPDATE 1:45 p.m.
The La Plata County Sheriff placed Rafter J along Wildcat Canyon (County Road 141) on pre-evacuation notice shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday.
“The fire has made some southern progress today and given the conditions and the wind behavior and the fire behavior, the crews felt it was better to put that subdivision on pre-evacuation notice,” La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham said.
Residents should gather important documents, clothes, medications and be prepared to leave with pets if a evacuation notice is issued, a news release said.
Also, the City of Durango has asked residents to not leave sprinklers on when leaving their homes. Doing so ensures that firefighters have an adequate water supply.
There is zero containment of the fire, which grown to about 300 acres.
“It is hard to establish containment in this terrain,” said Scot Davis, public information officer for the Durango Interagency Command.
UPDATE 1 p.m.
Bulldozers and more air tankers are being called to the fire, said Scot Davis, public information officer for the Durango Interagency Command.
Air tankers are coming from Denver and bulldozers from around Durango will be used to build more fire breaks.
Firefighters are putting in two fire breaks, to the south of the two fires, he said.
A Type II Incident Management Team will take over fire management on Friday morning, he said. The classification of management team is based on the terrain and a fire’s proximity to structures. A Type I team handles the most complex fires.
More resources and more money will be available when the Type II team takes over, he said.
A Type III management team has been handling the fire thus far.
UPDATE 12:30 p.m.
The state’s multimission aircraft was flying over the Lightner Creek Fire midday Thursday to map it and determine the exact acreage, said Caley Fisher, of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
She expected an updated map with the perimeter of the fire to be released Thursday afternoon.
The winds were picking up and the fire was growing around noon as well, Scot Davis, public information officer for the Durango Interagency Command, said in an email.
The La Plata County Fairgrounds was declared the command center for a Type II incident team, which will bring more equipment and crews.
The evacuation center at the fairgrounds was relocated to Escalante Middle School, and public transportation was provided for those who needed help moving. Pets are not allowed at Escalante, but they can be taken to the La Plata County Humane Society.
Meanwhile, haze from the fire was drifting across the region.
“The smoke will likely drift south toward Durango and Pagosa Springs today. There looks like there is smoke in the Animas Valley extending to Pagosa right now,” said Matthew Aleksa, a meteorologist with the weather service
The Lightner Creek Fire is expected to grow Thursday as dry weather and high winds persist in the region, and it was declared a disaster emergency by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Although most residents in Durango awoke Thursday to relatively clear skies and the appearance the fire had died down, firefighters are bracing for another tough day, according to Scot Davis, public information officer for the Durango Interagency Command.
Colorado’s multi-mission aircraft has been deployed to assess the size of the fire, which has grown to more than 250 acres.
The governor’s declaration includes authorization for the Colorado National Guard to provide support if requested.
Also, the Red Cross will move the evacuation center to Escalante Middle School Thursday afternoon, and the La Plata County Fairgrounds is expected to be used for firefighter operations.
Aerial firefighting operations were interrupted for up to an hour Wednesday evening and two aircraft had to jettison fire retardant uselessly after at least one drone was reported in the area.
Air operations were grounded around sunset because drones made it unsafe for pilots to fly, said Chris Tipton, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service. Flying drones in a fire operations area is a federal crime.
Pilots can’t see drones and they can get into a plane’s engine or go through the windshield and harm the pilot, he said.
The planes were ready to drop retardant on the section of the fire moving toward Durango when they had to be grounded, he said.
But instead, two planes had to jettison about 1,600 gallons of retardant worth between $8,000 and $10,000. One plane dropped it too high above the fire to do any good and another plane dropped it near the airport, he said.
The Durango Police Department spoke with two people flying drones over the fire Wednesday night, La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham said.
Evan Niccum was flying a drone in the Rockridge area and boy under 18 was flying a second drone; others also were reported in the area, she said.
The police turned the information about the pilots over to the U.S. Forest Service, she said.
Planes started dropping retardant on the fire around 8 a.m. Thursday morning and plan to fly all day, Tipton said. There are five single engine air tankers, two large air tankers, one aerial supervision module, one air attack airplane and one helicopter.
Thursday is a critical day to fight the fire from the air before more ground resources arrive.
“We’re utilizing the air resources to check the fire,” he said.
Davis said it’s typical fire behavior for a fire to “lay down overnight” as temperatures and winds drop, and humidity increases. But as temperatures and winds increase throughout the day, so does the fire.
“We’re expecting it to grow, but what it does remains to be seen,” Davis said around 8:30 a.m. “We have no idea its direction or movement.”
A red flag warning is in effect until 8 p.m. for most of western Colorado and eastern Utah, including the Durango area. The National Weather Service predicts winds of 10 to 20 mph, with gusts up to 35 mph in the afternoon.
The fire was reported about 4 p.m. Wednesday in the 1200 block of Lightner Creek Road, and quickly consumed 50 acres on the west side of the canyon a couple miles west of Durango. It is believed to have started at a house at 1255 Lightner Creek Road. Neighbors reported some loud booms and said the house was destroyed before firefighters arrived 20-30 minutes later.
A second “spot fire” – a term for a fire ignited outside the original burn area, usually due to a windborne ember – started on the east side of Lightner Creek Road and worked its way toward Perins Peak.
As of Thursday morning, the spot fire was working its way up the west side of Perins Peak, Davis said.
The fire is zero percent contained, Davis said.
In a morning briefing, officials said as of 8 a.m. no new structures are threatened, and there have been no injuries or fatalities.
Davis said evacuations remain in effect for residents on county roads 206, 207 and 208, affecting some 170 homes. The same goes for a pre-evacuation notice for the Rockridge subdivision, he said.
Davis said there’s no timeline for when the evacuations and road closures may be lifted. The American Red Cross set up a shelter at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.
Nineteen people spent the night in the evacuation center, said Red Cross volunteer Greg Roswell.
Arizona residents Mike and Sue Spahle were among those who stayed in the shelter. They were camping at the Lightner Creek Campground when the fire started and thought it would be contained so they came into town for dinner and couldn’t get back in. They left behind a small trailer, tent and other camping equipment.
“If it goes up in flames, so be it. We don’t have anything too valuable,” Mike Spahle said.
But they did plan to wait to see if they could retrieve their equipment.
About 50 personnel with seven firefighting apparatuses will work the blaze Thursday, Davis said. Air support, including a helicopter and air tankers, will be part of that effort.
Davis said since there is only one way in and out of the burn area – if the fire starts rolling north in the County Road 207/208 area, ground crews would have to pull back and rely on air operations.
Durango Fire Protection District, La Plata County Emergency Management, Los Pinos, Upper Pine, Southern Ute Agency Fire Management, Ute Mountain Ute Agency, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control are all helping to fight the fire, he said.
Staff writers Mary Shinn, Jonathan Romeo, Mia Rupani and Alex Semadeni contributed to this report.