Fire officials focused on the southwestern perimeter of the 416 Fire on Tuesday as it moved closer to the Falls Creek Ranch subdivision, northwest of Durango.
According to a report Tuesday night, the fire was at 23,378 acres and was 15 percent contained. The Burro Fire was listed at 2,684 acres with zero percent containment.
Crews used numerous back-burns near the Falls Creek subdivision to help firefighters in areas where they couldn’t directly engage with flames, said Jamie Knight, a spokeswoman on the 416 Fire.
The back-burns were lit in an effort to secure existing lines and to build more in preparation of the fire spreading. Hand crews have been working along County Road 204 to prepare for controlled burns that will likely occur in the upcoming days to prevent the fire from spreading south.
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, Knight said.
Firefighters are also preparing the Junction Creek Road line, moving northwest toward the Clear Creek Trail.
In coming days, significant burnout operations are planned in the area bordered by Junction Creek Road on the west and Falls Creek Road on the east.
The burnouts are aimed at removing fuel between the fire’s edge and planned containment areas. Smoke and flames will be seen from Durango, according to a news release issued Tuesday night. The Type 1 team plans to offer updates as information is available.
On Tuesday night, air operations were slated to continue until 9 p.m. Crews patrolled areas around Hermosa and north and would perform burnout operations only if fire behavior dictates the need. Firefighters continue to mop up already-burned areas near Hermosa and are implementing further structure protection measures as needed.
Fire officials were letting the fire burn west in the Hermosa Creek Wilderness Area toward the Burro Fire northeast of Dolores. Fire officials are aware of the possibility of the two fires merging. As long as the fires don’t threaten any structures, officials aren’t concerned with that possibility.
On Tuesday afternoon, San Juan County lifted evacuation orders for 184 residents. Residents will be allowed to return at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Residents returning home will need to present Rapid Tag credentials to be allowed back in.
La Plata County will have conversations about letting other evacuees back into their homes. Megan Graham, spokeswoman with the county, said fire behavior, safety measures and ease of access for firefighters are what fire officials have to consider when making the decision.
“The goal is to get people back into their homes as quickly as we can and as quickly and safely as possible both for residents and for folks working on the fire,” Graham said. “But that has to be done in a strategic and orderly fashion. We’re making those plans now and hope to roll them out in the next bunch of days. I don’t know when because it’s a variable process given all those factors that are outstanding.”
After being closed for two days, Highway 550 will reopen at noon Wednesday to escorted-through 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.
The county plans to reopen Highway 550 with limited access as long as fire behavior allows, Graham said. As evacuation orders are lifted and people are allowed to return to their homes, the highway might temporarily close to allow evacuees to return in an orderly manner.
“The goal is to get the highway open to the largest extent possible as quickly as is safely possible,” Graham said.
Stage 3 fire restrictions in the San Jan National Forest were put in place Tuesday and will be in force until the forest receives sufficient moisture to improve conditions.
“I want to stress this was a very difficult decision and was not based on emotion,” said Kara Chadwick, supervisor of the San Juan National Forest. “We have criteria we use on implementing these three levels of restrictions.”
Criteria include fuel moisture, availability of firefighting resources and adverse weather conditions, she said on a Facebook video.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton will visit Durango on Friday to meet with officials coordinating firefighting efforts and hear from members of the community.
“Colorado has allocated more resources for firefighting than any other state in the Rocky Mountain West,” Hickenlooper said in a statement released Tuesday.
“We recognize the conditions are dry and hot. Public health and safety are the top priorities in fighting any fire. If you are in the fire zones, please follow safety procedures and directives. Our state agencies are here to support you. As we have proved time and time again, Coloradans are resilient.”
In advance of their visit, Lt. Gov. and Chief Operating Officer Donna Lynne, along with members of the Governor’s Cabinet, met with city officials and La Plata County commissioners Tuesday.
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.
In Colorado, a new fire, the Buffalo Mountain Fire, broke out Tuesday in Summit County. Firefighters are also battling the Bocco Fire in Eagle County and the Emery Gap Fire in Las Animas County.