A little more than a month and nearly 2 inches of rain later, the Lightner Creek Fire that erupted with frightening speed on June 28 is quickly becoming a distant memory, and that is good news for all of us in La Plata County.
But before we let the fire disappear from our rearview mirrors, I think it’s important to point out a few of the reasons that, while the Lightner Creek Fire was a scary event for our community, it did not develop into the disaster that it could have become.
When a home caught fire on the west side of Lightner Creek that Wednesday afternoon, the conditions could not have been worse, and the fire behaved accordingly. Within moments, it had jumped a half-mile across the creek and began climbing east and north toward the city of Durango. The smoke plume over town was dramatic and concerning. Temperatures were high and the wind was blowing hard – in the wrong direction.
But just as quickly, the Durango Fire Protection District had crews on the scene, and our Durango Interagency Type III Incident Management Team was on the way to assist. This team brought in the big guns early and, with big help from the Bureau of Land Management Tres Rios Field Office, they hit the fire hard that evening and the next day with a dazzling and incredibly effective air attack. This was a pivotal moment and kept the Lightner Creek Fire from growing substantially in its early hours.
Meanwhile, La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith had evacuated residents along County Roads 206, 207 and 208, and we set up an emergency shelter for these folks and their animals at the La Plata County Fairgrounds, where the American Red Cross provided resources, businesses donated food and individuals donated water, clothing, food and other comforts. Evacuating your home during an emergency is always distressing, but our community quickly rallied to alleviate what it could of the challenges our neighbors faced.
Given the fire’s behavior, its proximity to town and the weather and fuel conditions, Rich Gustafson, the Type III team Incident Commander, decided to call in a Type II team equipped with more resources to handle larger, more complex fires. That team arrived Thursday night, and took over the fire Friday morning. They set up shop at the Fairgrounds, and we moved the shelter to Escalante Middle School, thanks to Durango School District 9-R’s generosity and responsiveness.
The La Plata County Humane Society was on hand to house pets displaced by the fire, the Red Cross continued its seamless support for evacuees and San Juan Basin Public Health offered mental health resources and other assistance for the community. La Plata County Search and Rescue tended the call center and the Mounted Patrol provided support with traffic control on CR 207.
All of these agencies and many others literally dropped everything they were doing to join together in addressing the many needs that arise when a wildfire breaks out in a community.
La Plata County coordinated these support efforts while the fire teams worked tirelessly to turn what could have been a disaster into a memory of a close call for the community.
By Saturday night, most folks had returned home; by Sunday morning, everyone who was evacuated was allowed back.
This was no simple feat, and the La Plata County commissioners stand in awe and appreciation of the many agencies and individuals from near and far who came together to coordinate this massive and effective response to the Lightner Creek Fire.
It reminded us of how important community is, and how crucial it is to build and maintain relationships with our partners throughout the year so, when emergencies arise, we are ready.
While luck – or at least a cooperative weather pattern – had something to do with the Lightner Creek Fire’s relatively short life and limited damages, it was the effective cooperation and skill of those who came together when the fire broke out that we have to thank.
Now that the monsoons have begun, we can do ourselves a favor and look to prevention. There are many resources available to minimize fire risk on your property, and that is really important to those of us who live in areas like Lightner Creek, where the forest and homes converge.
Please contact Firewise of Southwest Colorado at 385-8909 or visit www.southwestcoloradofires.org to find out more.
Julie Westendorff is chairwoman of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at 382-6219.