Wildfire season arrived early in La Plata County, catching fire authorities ill-prepared.
The 213 Fire was a warning flare that vegetation is unusually dry and prone to catching fire. The brush fire began April 12 on the west bank of the Animas River near La Posta Road (County Road 213) and burned 60 acres before it was contained three days later.
It threatened a nearby subdivision, but the fire did not damage any homes.
The fire came as fire authorities still are ramping up for the season. No firefighting airplanes or helicopters were available to help fight the blaze, local officials said. Also, fewer crews were available than there will be at the height of summer.
“Some resources haven’t been brought into service yet,” said Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management.
Federal contracts for firefighting aircraft typically begin in May, said Rich Gustafson, fire-management officer at the Bureau of Indian Affairs Southern Ute Agency in Ignacio. Gustafson served as incident commander on the 213 Fire.
Gustafson considered bringing aircraft from New Mexico or Arizona, especially if the fire burned into the subdivision, but cool nights combined with the efforts of hand crews made that unnecessary, he said.
Key data also was lacking.
Wildfire incident commanders use fuel-moisture readings to predict how fiercely a fire may burn. Fires can begin easily and spread quickly in dry fuels, while trees, brush and other materials with a higher moisture content don’t readily catch fire.
That data was not available during the 213 Fire, Gustafson said.
Federal workers who gather the measurements were not yet doing so. Instead, Gustafson used readings taken in northern New Mexico by the Bureau of Land Management’s Farmington field office.
The Durango Fire Protection District also was not fully staffed for wildfire season. The district only had one brush-truck crew active; a second is expected to come online in mid-May, Fire Marshal Karola Hanks said.
The fire district established the first brush-truck crew earlier than usual, she said, “because we were anticipating a little earlier wildfire season due to the conditions.”
All DFPD firefighters have completed annual wildfire recertification training, she said.
The 213 Fire was the first this year for the San Juan Hotshots, an elite, Durango-based crew overseen by the U.S. Forest Service.
Still, fire agencies are realizing that fire season can and does start in April, not May or June, and they may need to shift to react.
“We’re going to have to change our operation a bit so we can expand the season a little bit and be ready come April now,” Gustafson said about the Southern Ute Agency.
Funding has been an obstacle to expanding firefighting resources into earlier months, he said.
The 213 Fire was sparked after a string of dry, windy days and an atypically dry winter. Fire authorities still have not released their determination of what caused the fire, saying it is under investigation.
The response to the 213 Fire was managed by the Southern Ute Agency because the fire burned on tribal land.
La Plata County’s wildfire season often begins before the heart of summer, which brings monsoonal rains. May and June are Durango’s driest months on average, while July and August are the area’s two rainiest months, according to federal climate records.
Wildfires burn accordingly. The 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire, which burned more than 70,000 acres, began June 9 of that year.
The Weber Fire started June 22, 2012, burning 10,000 acres near Mancos.
An early start to fire season should not come as a surprise after a dry winter. Regional snowpack is perilously low, falling to 41 percent of the 30-year median Tuesday in a National Resources Conservation Service composite index of the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins.
One possible source of relief may come in the form of a wet late spring and early summer. The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecasts above-normal precipitation in May, June and July for a wide swath of the West, including Southwest Colorado.
Hanks said the fire district isn’t counting on help from the skies.
“Like all of those reports, they do the best they can, and we just hope the projection comes true,” Hanks said.
Fire authorities have been working with local governments to finish annual fire-operating plans.
“We’ve been having meetings with different agencies to get those finalized,” Knowlton said. “We’re just about over that hurdle.”