The Durango Air Tanker Base at the Durango-La Plata County Airport is preparing for a busy wildfire season.
The base, operated by the U.S. Forest Service, was fully staffed Tuesday, about two weeks earlier than usual as a result of the fire danger, said San Juan National Forest fire management officer Richard Bustamante.
The base is home to a single-engine air tanker, which will be joined Wednesday by a firefighting helicopter.
The single-engine plane, capable of carrying 800 gallons of fire retardant, can take off quickly and make precise drops to prevent small wildfires from growing into behemoths, said Allyn Herrington, single-engine manager. Large planes may have to come from more distant locations, such as Denver, he said.
Helicopters can also make quick attacks, among other benefits, said SJNF aviation officer Jerran Flinders.
“That initial attack capability is great, because they can drop off people at the fire, configure, put on their bucket and then start dropping water on it,” Flinders said.
More aircraft and resources can be deployed to Durango based on local needs, Herrington said.
Fire season, which primarily runs through June in Southwest Colorado, looked grim early this winter, Bustamante said. He recalled a fire that started in November above 9,000 feet in elevation north of Durango where tracer rounds fired from a gun sparked a 60-acre wildfire.
Low snowpack has plagued the region throughout the winter. Fires have been happening almost daily throughout April, he said.
A chart demonstrates the worsening drought conditions throughout the Southwest. On March 13, higher elevations were considered to be in severe drought and lower elevations were in extreme drought. A month later, on April 17, much of the higher elevations were in “extreme drought,” and the lower elevations were in “exceptional drought.”
Currently, most of La Plata County is in exceptional drought, the most extreme category. All of Montezuma County is in exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The largest fires are usually caused by human activity, Bustamante said. Lightning strikes can spark fires, but those are generally more self-containing.
If a fire is deemed to be human-caused, an investigation will take place and people can be found liable for starting the fire.
La Plata County entered into Stage 1 fire restrictions Tuesday. If conditions reach the most restrictive Stage 3, land closures may take place, Bustamante said.
“We really don’t want to do that,” he said. “We want people to be able to recreate. That’s what we are: We’re public land managers, and the public land is owned by the people.”
Homes can be in danger when wildfires break out nearby. FireWise of Southwest Colorado recommends ways for homeowners to be prepared for fires, said spokesperson Charlie Landsman.
Homeowners should remove firewood and mulch from around their homes, he said. Homeowners should also sign up for Code Red emergency alerts, which will inform them of fires in the area.
In the best-case scenario, homes should be built with fireproof materials. However, older homes that are not fireproof can be repaired to reduce the amount of flammable material.
FireWise also offers programs and financial incentives to aid people and communities to mitigate fire danger.
“There are always going to be fires here,” Landsman said. “It’s an ongoing thing, so we can’t just focus on it while it’s scary and ignore it the rest of the time.”