The Burro Fire northeast of Dolores started in the Bear Creek drainage on Friday and has rapidly grown to 1,400 acres.
The main fire is burning in steep spruce-fir timber 5 miles up the Bear Creek trail on the south side of the canyon. On Friday, embers triggered spot fires on the north side of the canyon.
About 130 wildland firefighters are on scene, and there is zero percent containment.
Hand crews on Sunday focused their efforts near roads on the southern end of the fire, where the mixed conifer timber, including dead or fallen ponderosa pine and fir, was more dense. The steep, rugged terrain of the Bear Creek area has limited crews’ mobility.
According to Pat Seekins of the Dolores Ranger District, fire personnel include a fire engine and Hotshot crews from Idaho, Nevada, Montana and Colorado, as well as a smokejumper crew from Idaho. The cause of the fire is unknown and is under investigation. Lightning hit the area on June 3.
The Burro Fire sent up a towering plume of smoke adjacent to the massive plume coming from the 416 Fire, which has scorched 22,000 acres 13 miles away north of Hermosa along U.S. Highway 550.
Beginning Monday, the Burro and 416 Fires will be managed jointly under a Type I firefighting crew, which allows for the highest level of resources, including hand crews, equipment and air support.
The San Juan National Forest is planning to implement Forest-wide Stage 3 fire closure this week, which will prohibit most entry into the forest. The purpose of the closure is to protect natural resources and public safety due to the danger of wildland fire. Fire danger on the SJNF remains very high due to exceptional drought and fuel conditions.
The closure order is expected to be signed Tuesday and remain in effect until the forest receives sufficient moisture to improve conditions.
Grazing on forest lands and access to private land will require written authorization from the District Ranger. The Dolores-Norwood Road (FR 526) will remain open.
McPhee Reservoir and the McPhee Boat Ramp likely will remain open, but no shoreline activity will be allowed. All logging and outfitting will be prohibited.
The closure prohibits all public entry into the closed area, including campgrounds, trails, trailheads and National Forest System roads. Violations of the closure carry a penalty of at least $5,000 and six months in prison.
On the front lines of the Burro Fire Sunday along the rim of Bear Creek canyon, wildland firefighters marched single file toward the blaze as white and black smoke billowed into the air and nearby trees ignited into flames, called torching.
Due to the intensity of the fire and the steep, rugged terrain, directly suppressing the fire by hand right now is not an option for safety reasons, said incident commander Jeff Thumm.
Firefighters worked to establish containment lines beginning with an anchor point on the fire’s southwest edge along Forest Road 561, northeast of Transfer Campground. The plan is to create fire breaks to prevent it from spreading west toward the Dolores River where there is private property, and southward onto Haycamp Mesa and the Transfer Park area.
“We’ve located a containment line, and have two dozers arriving Monday to help create a line along the rim of Bear Creek Canyon,” Thumm said. “Once the fire reaches flatter ground, then we can more actively and safely engage it.”
Fire behavior includes single and group tree torching, and limited crown fire activity, he said. On Saturday, crews conducted backfire operations on the canyon rim along Forest Road 561 to eliminate fuel and reinforce the firebreak at the edge of the canyon.
Due to extremely dry fuel conditions, without rain, the fire will continue to grow, Thumm said.
“It will keep going until the monsoons,” he said, which do not typically arrive until July.
Tree moisture was measured at just 80 percent, when normally at this time of year they are at 200 percent, Thumm said. “The trees are stressed and dry, and ready to burn.”
Fire behavior was erratic on Sunday in windy conditions, said Lyle St. Goddard, superintendent for the Chief Mountain (Montana) Hotshot Crew.
“We’ve initiated a good containment plan,” he said. “The fire is moving toward the southeast and north, and that is a good direction because it is away from the structures along the Dolores River.”
Where the fire spotted across the Bear Creek drainage has the potential to make a significant run into remote forest toward the northeast and northwest. There are no structures or private property in that direction Thumm said, but if needed they would like to minimize fire impacts to a waterway containing a pure Colorado River cutthroat trout population.
Fire modeling shows there is potential for the Burro Fire and nearby 416 Fire to merge.
Public Information Officer Stephen Orr said Southwest Colorado is a high priority in the West for wildland firefighting resources due to the extreme drought conditions.
A new specialized medical unit called a Rapid Extraction Module will be arriving at the Burro Fire for firefighting safety.
Air support is available, and will be used when most effective. Dumping fire retardant in thick timber has limited benefits, officials said, because it does not penetrate well.
Logistical support for the Burro Fire will be conducted out of the Dolores high school, including services and camping for firefighters.
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said they are contacting residents along Colorado Highway 145 near the fire to advise them to begin thinking about potential pre-evacuation notices.
“We’re telling the public to keep informed and comply with the fire ban and closures,” he said.
There have been no injuries or structures lost due to the Burro Fire.