Firefighters prepared for a battle Thursday night as the 416 Fire moved down Hermosa Mountain and flirted with neighborhoods on the lower slopes.
Fire managers said the blaze could reach homes by Friday night in the Hermosa area, where an additional 500 homes were evacuated Thursday morning and another 750 homes were placed on pre-evacuation notice.
The 5,000-plus-acre blaze put on a show Thursday night, sending up fireballs and well-defined columns of smoke from the base of the mountain. A stream of cars traveled south on U.S. Highway 550, possibly residents who were on pre-evacuation who had second thoughts about staying.
Neal Kephart, a fire information official assisting the Type II team managing the blaze, said no structures were endangered as of 8:30 p.m. Thursday, and fire officials are confident enough preparatory work has been done around buildings so that it is unlikely any will be lost.
“For some time, crews have been working hard to mitigate the danger around structures, so we feel secure they could control them,” he said.
The fire, he said, has not crossed the Hermosa Creek drainage, but it has crossed the Jones Creek Trail and the Hermosa Creek Trail.
Burnouts along U.S. Highway 550 were not conducted during the heat of the day, but evening burnouts along the north end of the fire were planned Thursday to strengthen and widen fire lines and to reduce fuels to minimize the danger of spot fires on the highway’s east side.
No firefighters have been seriously injured, he said.
The fire remained active Thursday, especially on the southwestern side, Kephart said, with torching and crown runs on that end of the fire.
Burnout operations were conducted near the Lower Hermosa Campground, and the tactic slowed the fire, he said.
Use of slurry, which had not been as effective as hoped earlier this week, resumed Thursday.
“The tightness of the canopy had prevented slurry from reaching the ground, where it is more effective,” he said. “But, obviously, we will use it in an attempt to slow the fire down.”
A power line burned Thursday resulting in loss of power to households in the fire area.
La Plata Electric Association said the outage affects 700 households and businesses from Tamarron to the Purgatory area.
A news release on the outage reported crews were expected to arrive on scene near Honeyville to evaluate the situation Thursday night, and LPEA is working with emergency personnel to assist with the fire.
As expected, hot, dry conditions made Thursday a tough day for firefighters and similar conditions are expected Friday – high temperatures in the mid-80s and humidity levels in the single digits, Kephart said.
The fire Friday is expected to move to the west, and Kephart anticipated using air tankers and slurry again, especially on the west end.
Thursday’s evacuations were ordered for two reasons: to protect the public and to clear the area for firefighters to work, said Vickie Russo, a spokeswoman for the Type II team managing the blaze.
“We’re trying to be proactive instead of reactive,” she said, “and we’d rather folks be out of harm’s way as well as be out of the way of any firefighters that need to get in there and engage the fire.”
It’s not guaranteed fire will reach residences, but “it’s possible,” Russo said Thursday night.
“Firefighters will defend homes by using tactics such as prepositioned sprinkler systems, hose lays, engines, hand crews, backfiring and air support from helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Resources will be spread throughout the area and prepared to implement these structure-protection strategies as the fire progresses toward homes.”
The 6-day-old fire started about 10 a.m. Friday and had grown to 5,103 acres as of Thursday morning, the most recent estimate available. It was only 10 percent contained. An update on fire size and containment is expected Friday morning.
In total, more than 1,000 homes are evacuated and more than 1,500 homes are on pre-evacuation, according to La Plata County.
U.S. Highway 550 is expected to be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday for limited through traffic, meaning drivers can move through the corridor, but they aren’t allowed to stop or drive down side roads. They will be escorted by law enforcement. Otherwise, the highway remains closed between mile markers 32 and 44, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.
A Type I team will take command of firefighting efforts at 6 a.m. Saturday. They arrived for a briefing Thursday evening and will spend a majority of the day Friday “shadowing” the Type II team to learn more about the team’s firefighting efforts.
Kephart described “shadowing” as similar to on-the-job training and said it ensures the transition of teams is as smooth and safe as possible.
The Type I team brings similar skills as the Type II team but with advanced qualifications to manage larger, more complex fires.