PURGATORY – There’s an old saying: “Fight fire with fire.”
That’s what firefighters did Monday on the 416 Fire.
They used drip torches to set their own fires, called “backfires,” in an effort to reduce vegetation ahead of the 4-day-old wildfire burning 10 miles north of Durango, thereby depriving it of fuel as it chews through the San Juan National Forest.
Hot and dry conditions made for active fire behavior Monday on the 416 Fire, and with little change in the forecast, more of the same is expected in coming days.
“The conditions we have right now are going to lead to this being an active fire for the next several days,” said Shawn Bawden, spokesman for the Type II management team.
Firefighters had no update as of 9 p.m. Monday for the size or containment of the fire, which was reported Monday morning to be 2,402 acres and 10 percent contained.
The wildfire north of Durango has prompted the evacuation of 825 homes and pre-evacuation notices to be issued for another 1,021 homes.
The fire was most active Monday along its southern edge at the top of Hermosa Creek Drainage, where spot fires grew to about a quarter acre in size but were extinguished using helicopters, Bawden said.
U.S. Highway 550 was supposed to be open to limited through traffic from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, but the road closed about 2:20 p.m. between mile markers 35.5 (north of Honeyville) and 43.5 (near Electra Lake) as a result of heavy smoke that limited visibility.
“The winds have shifted and there’s just a ton of smoke on the highway, so they have decided for safety reasons to just go ahead and close it for the day,” Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, said Monday afternoon.
The highway is scheduled to reopen from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday; however, times could change or the road could close at any moment based on fire conditions. Drivers are escorted through the closure area by law enforcement; residents are not allowed to exit the highway and return home.
Several roads and trails in and around Hermosa Creek Watershed are closed to the public.
The 416 Fire fire started about 10 a.m. Friday north of Durango.
Federal firefighters have not identified a cause of the fire, listing it as “unknown.” As of Monday night, Graham said she didn’t have any information about status of the investigation.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has suspended all coal-fired steam passenger service through at least June 10 “to ensure guest and employee safety during the containment of the 416 Fire.” The D&SNG plans to launch a diesel locomotive passenger service later in June once it has been deemed safe to do so.
Weather is expected to be hot and dry this week, with highs in the mid-80s in Durango.
Three community meetings have been scheduled to brief residents about the fire and firefighting efforts.
The first will be at 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 5, at Animas Valley Elementary School, 373 Hermosa Meadows Road near Hermosa. The second will be at 7 p.m. at La Plata County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall, 2500 Main Ave., in Durango. The third will occur at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 6, at Silverton Town Hall, 1360 Greene St.
Evacuations and pre-evacuations remain in place until further notice by officials. La Plata County government officials said evacuations are required to allow for safe and effective fire operations.
The Durango evacuation center at Escalante Middle School expanded its hours and now has 24-hour capacity, including showers and food for evacuees.
Monday night, crews will patrol the burn area and monitor the fire. More burnouts are possible, Bawden said.
Officials describe their efforts on the 416 Fire a “full-suppression fire.
“We’re not letting it burn,” Bawden said. “We are fully suppressing this fire with all resources.”
The number of firefighters is now 416, with more expected to arrive in coming days.
Bawden said the fire has the necessary resources and is not competing for resources with other fires.