As smoke lingered in the Dolores River Valley, about 130 people filed into the town Community Center Thursday to hear an update on the Burro Fire and recent closure of the San Juan National Forest.
The fire has burned in 3,484 acres of the Bear Creek drainage and is moving northeast and southeast in mountainous, heavily timbered country. About 160 firefighters are assigned to the fire, down from about 200 on Wednesday. Firefighters are reporting 10 percent containment.
Rain and lower temperatures gave firefighters the chance on Friday to continue building containment lines on the important south side of the fire, and time to prepare for a surge in the fire when hot weather returns.
“The fire’s still burning, but very slowly,” Andy Lyon, public information officer for the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, said on Friday night. “We got some solid lines built on the southern end at Bear Creek.”
On Thursday night in Dolores, forest and fire officials and Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin encouraged the crowd at the community center to be patient because the wildfire was expected to burn for weeks.
“It is going to take extended monsoons to put this fire out,” said fire operations manager Jeff Thumm.
The crowd gasped when informed that if the monsoons missed the region, it would take winter snows to put out the fire.
“We can herd the fire to avoid value areas, but it will take weather to put it out,” said Dan Dallas, incident commander for the Burro Fire. “Monsoons will likely put it out, but if not, we will have a line around it until it burns out or the snows hit.”
Dallas said cooler weather and rain would provide relief in the next few days, but “then it will be hot and dry again and get harder” to fight the fire.
Thumm reiterated firefighters’ plan to prevent the fire from moving west and southwest toward Haycamp Mesa and Transfer Park, and northwest toward the Dolores River and Colorado Highway 145, where there are residences and businesses.
A bulldozer crew has created a 2.5-mile firebreak along the southwest edge of Bear Creek Canyon, a site that The Journal toured on Sunday. Crews on Thursday considered drawing a containment line on Morrison Trail (610), east of Haycamp Mesa. Aspen groves, which do not burn as quickly as mixed conifer, also were considered as part of the northwestern fire line.
Trying to stop the fire from going northeast is not practical because of the heavy timber, dry conditions, limited water and rugged terrain, Thumm said. However, if the fire makes a significant run to the northeast, it would trigger additional resources to defend the town of Rico.
On the fire’s southwest side, firefighters are using Forest Road 561 as a firebreak. If that fails, they plan to use Forest Road 350 farther southwest.
To protect private property nearest the fire on the southwest and northwest, fire officials said they are establishing trigger points for calling in additional resources and a Ready Set Go system for evacuation.
“We’re at the ‘be ready’ stage,” Thumm said. “We are establishing trigger points so if the fire gets to a certain point near property, we call in what we need to protect those structures.”
Residences in the region of the fire have been identified, and fire specialists are contacting owners about structure protection plans, risks, possible evacuation and fire mitigation. Sheriff Nowlin urged everyone to begin thinking about possible evacuation.
“Have a plan, gather important documents, medications and valuables in a bag, You should be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Do not forget your pets, have a plan for your livestock,” he said.
“How much notice will we have?” asked a guest ranch owner who has dozens of horses near the fire.
Fire officials said they would give as much notice as possible, but because wildfires can be unpredictable, residents could get a day or only an hour to evacuate.
Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla gave the crowd additional details about the decision on June 12 to close the San Juan National Forest. Implementation of Stage 3 restrictions, he said, is based on meeting seven of 10 criteria including extremely dry fuel, public risk, human-caused fire risk, hot and dry weather, limited resources, and the existing Burro and 416 fires. Conditions in the forest have met all 10 criteria for two weeks, he said.
“Closing the forest is an inconvenience, but is necessary to protect the public and resources,” Padilla said. “Without the public out there, it reduces the chances of human-caused ignitions.”
He said that without the closure, more wildfires could trap the public in the forest. When the Burro Fire started, officials were surprised how many campers were in the Bear Creek and Gold Run area, Padilla said. Dozens of campers were removed using vehicles. Helicopters equipped with loudspeakers hovered over campsites and announced that campers needed to leave.
The closure bans public access, including on trails and roads, and the shoreline of McPhee. The McPhee boat ramp is open for open water boating only. Forest exemptions include private property owners, utility workers, grazing permittees, communication towers, and fire and rescue personnel. Exemptions are managed from the Dolores Public Lands Office.
Officials pointed out that there also are forest closures for the Cibola and Sante Fe national forests in New Mexico because of the extreme wildfire risk.
Another audience member urged that the Twin Spruce fishing area be closed to protect nearby residences, and said she sees “lit cigarette butts tossed on the ground at the lakes.”
Fire managers said that before the Stage 3 fire restrictions, they had been putting out unattended campfires in the Boggy, Haycamp and Colorado 145 areas, even though a fire ban already existed.
“One of my delivery drivers saw people up the West Fork with a campfire, and when told there was a ban, they did not care,” said Mark Malinowski, who lives south of the Burro Fire.
The fact that the Burro Fire spread so quickly at such a high elevation so early in the year is abnormal, and shows how dry it is in the forest, officials said.
When the Burro Fire began on June 8, slurry bombers made several passes to stop it but had no effect because the fire retardant could not penetrate the thick tree canopy. Smokejumpers also landed at the fire site within the first few hours to try and snuff it out, but the rugged terrain and rapidly moving flames limited their efforts.
”We are asking for your patience. It is going to get tougher,” said Dallas. “Help each other and make the community stronger. The fire will go out. You will be more resilient after this event, I promise you.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation by forest officials and the Montezuma County sheriff.