4:50 p.m.Residents of San Juan County who have been evacuated for the 416 Fire will be allowed to return home beginning at 8 a.m. Wednesday, according to a news release issued Tuesday by La Plata County government.
The decision to allow residents to return is based on predicted fire behavior and progress made by firefighters working on the fire, the release said.
Residents returning home will need to present the Rapid Tag resident credentials to be allowed back in. The residences in San Juan County will remain on pre-evacuation notice.
Also, beginning at noon Wednesday, U.S. Highway 550 will reopen to escorted traffic until 6 p.m. The northern closure point will move from Molas Pass (mile marker 64) to mile marker 49.5 just north of Purgatory.
As firefighters continue to make progress on the east side of the fire, additional re-entries will be evaluated in La Plata County.
11:55 a.m.Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, and Rep. Scott Tipton will visit the Durango area on Friday to meet with fire officials coordinating firefighting efforts and hear from members of the community.
In advance of their visit, Lt. Gov. and Chief Operating Officer Donna Lynne, along with members of the Governor’s Cabinet, will visit the area Tuesday to meet with city officials and La Plata County commissioners. They are planning to meet at 1:15 p.m. at the county Administration Building, 1101 East Second Ave.
Tony Vicari, director of aviation at the Durango-La Plata County Airport, said all commercial service is operating normally and is unaffected by the fire. The airport, he said, has been getting numerous inquiries about whether the fire is affecting flight schedules.
10:30 a.m.Controlled back-burns conducted Monday helped slowdown the 416 Fire, which was last reported at 23,378 acres and 15 percent contained.
Burnout operations occurred well into early Tuesday, said spokeswoman Jamie Knight. Crews used numerous back-burns near the Falls Creek subdivision to help firefighters in areas where they couldn’t directly engage with flames. These efforts created large plumes of smoke as fire moved into thick stands of trees.
“They were using fire in places where the terrain makes it difficult to make a direct attack,” Knight said. “A lot of what was seen yesterday (Monday) was successful tactics to use fire to help remove fuels in a manner that those firefighters could control.”
Though the fire has gotten close to several residences, no structures have been damaged. The mitigation techniques that both firefighters and residents did in preparation of the fire helped prevent any structures from being lost.
“That’s a huge win for the firefighters and the there,” Knight said. “It’s becoming more evident over the last few days that the work residents did before the fire really aided firefighters working to protect structures.”
Crews plan to spend Tuesday using more back-burns in an effort to secure lines that are already being created and building more lines in preparation of fire spread. Hand crews have been working along County Road 204 in preparation for controlled burns that will likely occur in the upcoming days in an effort to prevent the fire from spreading south to Durango.
Similar efforts will be utilized on the northern perimeter. A control line around Purgatory is complete in the event the fire travels farther north. Currently, the northern perimeter of the fire is near Haviland Lake on the west side of Highway 550.
“A lot of work goes into making sure the lines are strong and are going to hold when we are ready to use them,” Knight said. “We’ll be making sure that lines are in and ready to be used if we should need them.”
Crews are expected to grow containment lines on the eastern perimeter of the fire along the Highway 550 corridor. They will continue to patrol the area to maintain control lines and watch for potential spot fires that could jump the highway.
“There’s parts that are fairly secure at this point,” Knight said. “They’re still doing a lot of work making sure there’s no heat anywhere near the control line.”
Over 900 firefighters are working on the fire. They will be aided by eight helicopters dropping buckets of water on hot spots Tuesday. The air tanker base in Durango does have air resources available should officials need them, but air tankers haven’t been as effective as helicopters because of the terrain, Knight said.
“They’re certainly a resource there that we can use and will use if the situation dictates,” Knight said, “but there’s no definitive plan that they will be flying at this time of day.”
Temperatures are expected to be in the low 80s Tuesday, with a relative humidity between six and 12 percent, Knight said. Wind gusts up to 20 mph are expected in the afternoon, which officials predict will lead to active fire behavior.
“Unfortunately, we’re expecting a similar pattern to what we saw yesterday (Monday),” Knight said.
The U.S. Forest Service announced Sunday it intends to close the San Juan National Forest. The closure is expected to take effect Tuesday. Also on Tuesday, La Plata County government enacted Stage 3 fire restrictions, and the city of Durango will consider closing trails and open spaces in city limits, including Animas City Mountain, Carbon Junction, Dalla Mountain Park, Horse Gulch and Overend Mountain Park.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad extended cancellations of all service until at least June 30. Passengers will receive an automatic refund. The railroad said in a news release that it plans to offer limited service using a diesel locomotive but has not released a time line for doing so.
Highway 550 will continue to be closed Tuesday to aid firefighting efforts. The road will be closed from mile marker 32 to 64, which is from Cometti/Mead Lane to the top of Molas Pass. The Colorado Department of Transportation urged drivers not to be a “lookie-loo” and to stay clear of the southern closure point.
The Burro fire, roughly 10 miles west of the 416 Fire, has reached 2,684 acres and has no containment. The Type I team has assigned 168 fire personnel to battle that fire.