Nearly all previously closed public lands around Durango, including the entire San Juan National Forest, reopened Thursday, despite ongoing extreme drought conditions and unprecedented fire danger.
Last week, these areas were closed to recreation in an effort to prevent the outbreak of wildfire while two active fires – the 416 and Burro – swept through the San Juan National Forest north of Durango and northeast of Dolores, respectively.
But the U.S. Forest Service said Wednesday that rain over the weekend tempered fire behavior, and that long-range forecasts are predicting the region will not have the same hot, dry and low-humidity conditions that dominated the first part of June and led to extreme fire activity.
Southwest Colorado – amid one of the driest years in recorded history – received between 0.5 and 1.5 inches of rain last weekend, which helped slow the 416 and Burro fires, but not extinguish them.
If another fire ignites, said Richard Bustamante, fire manager for the San Juan National Forest, resources are available locally to respond quickly.
“There’s always a chance ... there could be someone out there that ends up starting a fire,” he said. “But we also know we’re going to have a good response to that fire, though of course there’s no guarantee of suppression.”
The Forest Service said fire conditions are “not likely to reach the previously extreme levels.”
But the Forest Service’s explanation of why it, in part, lifted Stage 3 restrictions contradicts what weather experts are predicting.
Jeff Colton, an incident meteorologist for the 416 Fire, said any benefit the rain brought will be gone by this weekend. The region is quickly returning to the same hot and dry weather conditions that existed before last weekend’s storm, and thus the perfect recipe for fire danger, he said.
“We knew the impacts would be short-lived,” Colton said. “By this weekend, we’ll have nearly identical weather conditions prior to the rains.”
Also, the National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for Friday because of incoming high winds that could reach up to 35 mph and low relative humidity that could cause “rapid rates of fire growth and spread.”
“From where we were with the rainfall, the atmosphere has dried up dramatically,” Colton said.
In the long term, the National Weather Service is forecasting normal to below-normal rainfall for Southwest Colorado over the next two weeks during a month that is typically the driest of the year for region.
The National Weather Service also predicts above-average temperatures for the next two weeks.
Bustamante with the Forest Service said other factors, such as the impacts to local economies, played a part in the decision to reopen the forest.
Local businesses in Durango and Silverton have been feeling the economic effects of the 416 Fire and the closure of the San Juan National Forest.
Anne Rapp, owner of Rapp Corral, said her outfitting company – which operates mostly on forest land – has already lost more than $30,000 in cancellations for horseback trail rides.
“Pressing the refund button was incredibly depressing on those smoky days,” she said. “June is basically a total loss for us.”
A lot of the financial hits because of the 416 Fire have yet to be felt. Rapp said she has heard people have chosen other places for vacation and have canceled plans to visit the area in July.
So it was at least a sliver of good news when Rapp heard Wednesday that the San Juan National Forest would reopen Thursday, albeit with a sense of caution.
“It can save our business this summer,” Rapp said. “But at the same time, I really hope that everybody’s super careful and doesn’t start another fire.”
DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said the town was surprised by the Forest Service’s decision to reopen.
The town of Silverton has been hit especially hard, with on-and-off closures of U.S. Highway 550 and the suspended service of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which delivers tens of thousands of visitors throughout the summer.
But just as important are the popular Colorado, Ice Lakes and Highland Mary trails on Forest Service land.
“To have those backcountry hiking trail accessible to our visitors is essential to our outdoor economy,” Gallegos said.
Stage 2 fire restrictions, which will remain in place until further notice, prohibit open flames, smoking, fireworks and other activities that can cause wildfire.
The San Juan National Forest, Bureau of Land Management and city of Durango public lands also reopened at 3 p.m. Thursday. Fort Lewis College also reopened its open spaces and trails on campus, which includes the Nature Trail, Sky Steps, Rim Trail and the disc golf course.
Lake Nighthorse, which is managed by the city of Durango, will reopen at 7 a.m. Friday.
An area around the active 416 and Burro fires will remain closed to public entry, including segments of the Colorado Trail from Molas Pass to the Junction Creek terminus.