Firefighters prepared for a multiday battle late Saturday as the Weber Fire spewed a huge plume of smoke skyward, forced evacuation of dozens of homes and grew to an estimated 6,000 acres.
Flames came within 300 yards of the nearest home, but no structures had been lost as of Saturday evening, said Pam Wilson, fire information officer with the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center.
The blaze was about three-quarters of a mile from crossing U.S. Highway 160 near Mancos Hill at 8 p.m. Saturday, Wilson said.
“There's certainly a good possibility” the fire will cross the highway and disrupt transportation and movement of fire resources between Durango and Cortez, she said.
Firefighters spent the day on the defensive protecting homes. They said the blaze was zero percent contained Saturday night.
While the town of Mancos was not immediately threatened, it was placed on a pre-evacuation notice as a precaution.
A second fire started Saturday about 3:35 p.m. along U.S. Highway 550 south of Durango, a couple of miles north of the state line. Several homes were threatened, and U.S. Highway 550 was shut down for about three hours from the state line four miles north to Bondad. Air support was called to assist, said Dan Noonan, chief of Durango Fire & Rescue Authority.
In Montezuma County, the Sheriff's Office issued 110 mandatory home evacuation orders. About 350 more homeowners were notified they may need to evacuate. The Target Tree Campground along Highway 160 was closed as a precautionary measure.
“They're definitely threatened,” Wilson said.
Weather forecasters predicted another hot day today with the possibility of thunderstorms. Officials fear the storms could bring erratic wind gusts up to 45 mph as well, as dry lightning, which could start more fires in the days ahead.
“Obviously, we're very concerned,” said Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County's Office of Emergency Management. “The conditions are extreme.”
The Weber Fire was reported about 4:30 p.m. Friday three miles south of Mancos. By 7 p.m. Saturday, it was estimated at 5,500 to 6,000 acres in size, burning through thick pine trees and oak brush.
It had not crossed into La Plata County as of Saturday evening.
It is one of four major fires burning across Colorado, and officials said air resources were stretched thin. On Saturday, at least two air tankers, three helicopters and a guide plane were battling the Weber Fire. More than 130 fire personnel were assigned to the blaze.
The firefighting cost as of Saturday evening was $245,000.
The fire was being managed by a Type III federal command team – the lowest priority. But a Type II team was en route from South Dakota and is expected to assume command Monday, Wilson said.
The fire started next to a road in Weber Canyon and moved northeast into East Canyon.
The cause of the fire remained under investigation.
The Weber Fire was active on several fronts Saturday. It began backing down a hill toward Mancos by mid afternoon.
“This is actually a good thing, as it will allow the fire to get to less-steep terrain where we can safely engage it,” said Justin Kinkaid, an operations chief.
Flames came closest to homes in the Elk Springs Ranch subdivision, on the eastern flank of the fire.
The fire marched northeast toward Highway 160.
“We also started to see strong fire on the west side, near the point of origin,” Wilson said, but it was mostly a flare-up.
Fire officials had been preparing for a bad fire season.
Durango has not had any measurable rain for six weeks – since May 12, when it rained 0.02, “which still is nothing,” said Tom Renwick, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
Temperatures also have been well above average since March, he said.
“It's like a tinderbox – you get any sort of fire, and it just goes crazy,” Renwick said.
Conditions are similar to those 10 years ago when the Missionary Ridge Fire scorched 72,962 acres in the Durango area and burned 46 homes during 39 days.
Residents in close proximity to the Weber Fire were “scared” but “understanding” of the situation, Wilson said.
“Our residents, in general, are very well-prepared for this to be a bad fire season, and I think they understand the limitations of fire resources,” she said.
A huge plume of smoke rose thousands of feet into the sky above Mancos, high enough to create its own thunder cloud.
“It's definitely creating its own weather,” Wilson said.
Durango residents woke up Saturday to a smoke-filled valley with a fine layer of ash covering their cars.
Thirty miles west in Mancos, the air was clear but the plume of smoke was prominent.
“Right now, we actually have blue skies, and it's not too smoky in Mancos,” Wilson said earlier on Saturday. “But the plume is very obvious.”