BEAR CREEK CANYON RIM – In a meadow northeast of Transfer Campground, a firefighter city has become a strategic base to battle the 3,700-acre Burro Fire in nearby Bear Creek Canyon.
About 6 a.m. Monday, more than 100 firefighters emerge from a field of pup tents to gather at a mess hall for heaping plates of eggs and hash browns and gallons of coffee. They all grab bagged lunches for later in the day.
“Wildland firefighters require 4,000 to 6,000 calories per day,” says one of the servers.
A communications trailer hums with electronics and is plastered with maps detailing firefighting strategies for several divisions on the fire’s perimeter. A main briefing details the day’s objectives and fire conditions, then division leaders huddle to further coordinate their teams.
Firetrucks and equipment sit idle on an edge of camp, and rows of Le Pew portable potties line the other side.
“We work 15-hour shifts, and there is a lot of teamwork and logistics involved,” says Brian Duran, who operates a water tender. “Camp morale is good, information is shared well, and the chow is good, too.”
A steady two-day rain last weekend caused the Burro Fire to sputter and lie down, but it also turned the base camp off Forest Road 561 into a muddy and rutted field.
Aside from roadblocks and a local sheriff’s deputy controlling access, there are no outward signs of the wildfire that burns and smolders deep in the remote Bear Creek Canyon.
That’s in stark contrast to a week earlier, when the wildfire was rapidly growing, spewing an ominous plume of smoke that stretched high into the atmosphere and alarmed residents of Dolores, Cortez, Mancos and Rico.
A Journal reporter and photographer, taking a tour Monday with public information officer Andy Lyon, quickly learn that the fight doesn’t end until the fire’s cold.
The fire is expected wake up again as the region heads into another week of hot, dry weather, incident commander Dan Dallas tells the troops at the morning briefing.
“Fire behavior is limited today. Now is the time to make a lot of progress,” he says.
The goal is to prevent the fire from moving southwest toward Transfer Park and northwest toward Colorado Highway 145.
So far, the fire is cooperating, Dallas says, and by Tuesday, containment jumped from 12 percent to 53 percent.
“It has stayed put on the western edge and does not want to move down Bear canyon,” he says. “The moisture and groves of aspen trees are slowing the fire’s progress.”
A 6-mile bulldozed firebreak has been created along Forest Road 561 on the southwestern flank. The plan is to deploy hand crews onto the Morrison Trail to create a firebreak on the northwestern side. On the southeastern side, containment lines are tying into scree fields leading up to Indian Trail Ridge.
“In layman’s terms, we are creating a giant catcher’s mitt to herd this fire and prevent it from moving southward,” Dallas says.
The fire is “fuel-driven,” meaning it readily expands into mixed conifer and dead wood. Trees in this part of the San Juan National Forest have an abnormally low moisture content because of this winter’s low snowpack.
The whine of revved chain saws penetrates the air as we climb a steep slope to where the Black Mountain Hotshots, of Carson City, Nevada, are creating a firebreak along an old trail above the Gold Run trailhead. In the mid-distance, the fire’s active edge is sending up columns of smoke from forested hillsides.
“We were surprised when we didn’t find any snowpack at this elevation above 10,000 feet,” says Skylr Penna of the hot-shot crew. “The fuels here are really dry.”
The trail is the control line, and the crews with chain saws take out ladder fuels, standing dead trees, and deadfall in a 30-foot swath on the “burn side” where the fire might approach.
“The tactic creates a fuel break if the fire gets to this point, slowing it down and allowing some defensible space if fire crews need to fight it directly later,” Penna says.
The containment line also reduces the risk of embers starting spot fires. It allows for back-burning operations later to starve an oncoming fire of fuel, allowing it to burn itself out.
Firefighter Issac Walden explains that “swampers” gather up the limbs and small trees and hand them off to a series of “chainers,” who toss the debris onto the green side of the control line, removing fuel from the oncoming fire.
The operation is efficient, and the 20-person crew makes fast progress. A mile away, farther up the slope, the Pike Hotshots of Monument are doing the same thing, working their way downhill.
Between the two hot-shot crews is lookout Josh Petrell. He stands near a scree field at 11,000 feet with a clear view of the fire’s front edge burning below.
“I watch the fire behavior and look for spot fires. I monitor the weather, temperature, wind and humidity, and keep in close communication with hot-shot crews,” Petrell says.
He uses a weather sling to check humidity levels. He wets a cotton bulb on one side, and twirls the unit until it’s dry, when it reveals a humidity reading.
On the other side of Bear Creek, a burn scar of scorched forest can be seen stretching 2,000 feet from the bottom of the canyon to the mesa top and beyond.
“It really burned hot and fast at first in thick, steep timber running fast uphill,” says firefighter Todd Woodward. “To try and corral it in those conditions with a direct fight was too dangerous, so creating firebreaks farther out became the strategy.”
When crew members meet on the trail, the first thing they discuss is safety and the best exit routes to scree fields and meadows if the fire suddenly gets too close. Earlier, crews were informed that a Blackhawk helicopter was available for rescue lifts if needed. Ambulances from local responders are stationed at the spike camps as well.
Back at base camp, cooks prepare for dinner, and the portable potties get pumped out. At noon, the firefighters still have eight hours left on their shift.
“We sharpen our saws at night, and turn in by 9 p.m. to get rested for the next day,” says firefighter Maurice St. Goddard. “We’ve herded the fire well; it doesn’t seem to want to come out of the canyon. If it does, we’ve created some good firebreaks that will allow for a more direct fight if needed.”