In an effort to prevent more catastrophic wildfires, government agencies Tuesday enacted unprecedented regulations, closing public lands to outdoor recreation.
Extreme drought, extreme wildfire danger and two active, uncontrolled fires prompted fire officials and local leaders to send a clear message: Public lands must be closed to recreation to prevent the outbreak of additional fires that would drain resources to fight the 416 and Burro fires.
As of Tuesday, the 416 Fire had burned more than 23,000 acres north of Durango, and the Burro Fire had burned more than 2,600 acres northeast of Dolores. The edges of the fires are mere miles apart.
“We’re seeing fire behavior on an epic scale,” Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Dougherty said to La Plata County commissioners on Tuesday. “We have a great deal of concern for further limiting the economic diversity of our community but ... any misstep could cause us to have another fire.”
On Tuesday, the Forest Service officially closed the entire San Juan National Forest to the public indefinitely. The closure order, which was enacted through Stage 3 fire restrictions, closed campgrounds, day-use areas, roads and trails. Hiking, dispersed camping and other recreational activities are also not allowed.
The two active fires are on portions of the San Juan National Forest, which covers 1.8 million acres across nine counties in Southwest Colorado.
La Plata County also enacted Stage 3 fire restrictions, which closed all county-owned trails, encampments and open space.
Later Tuesday, the city of Durango passed an emergency ordinance that closed all of its open space and trails, which includes Horse Gulch, Dalla Mountain Park, Overend Mountain Park, Carbon Junction, the lower portion of Animas City Mountain and the Durango Dog Park.
Then, Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced the closure of Bodo, Perins Peak, Haviland Lake, Devil Creek and Williams Creek state wildlife areas until further notice.
Officials have been adamant that they understand what the loss of these areas means to the community. But they emphasize it is necessary.
“Under current conditions, one abandoned campfire or spark could cause a catastrophic wildfire, and we are not willing to take that chance with the natural and cultural resources under our protection and care, or with human life and property,” said Richard Bustamante with the U.S. Forest Service.
Responding to criticisms that closing off open space to the public is unfair to recreational users at low risk of starting wildfires, Dougherty said the measure is the best way to reduce human-caused fires, which is the top priority.
“The human-caused risks are incredibly great right now,” he said. “I’d hate to be standing here a week from now talking about the Horse Gulch Fire or the Lake Nighthorse Fire.”
Mayor Sweetie Marbury said Monday that the closure isn’t optional.
“It’s proactive and it’s prudent to make decisions like this,” Marbury said. “It’s temporary, and so you take temporary measures to ensure a long-term successful strategy.”
Marbury said there are plenty of options for activities around Durango, including Mesa Verde National Park and Aztec Ruins National Monument, as well as rafting and fishing opportunities.
“My daddy told me you have to be tough to live in the West in 1974, and that hasn’t changed,” Marbury said. “Durango is resilient.”
Dougherty said the decisions are not just about the potential for new fire. If, for instance, someone gets injured while hiking or biking on a trail, that takes away emergency personnel from fighting the two active fires.
Southwest Colorado is in one of the most extreme droughts in recorded history. The combination of drought, above-average temperatures, high winds, dry fuels on the forest floor and forest overgrowth have made this one of the most dangerous fire seasons.
Dougherty said that wood that’s burning in the San Juan National Forest is drier than lumber for sale at Home Depot.
An above-average monsoon season is expected to relieve the region sometime in July. It is possible trails and campgrounds could reopen then.
It appears the only open recreational activity around Durango is in the Animas City Mountain trail system on the portions managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which has yet to close any of the lands its manages.
The city of Durango said it has asked the BLM to close these areas.
In the meantime, Durango, a sort of mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, will have to temper its passion for the outdoors for a greater purpose, said City Manager Ron LeBlanc.
“Having a little restriction is a sacrifice we should more than make to protect our open space, as well as town and county,” he said.