(TNS) - On the morning of June 12, the sky over Summit County filled with glowing clouds of black smoke in just minutes. Summit County Fire & EMS received hundreds of 911 calls. By midday, thousands had been told to evacuate.
But, what seemed like a certain catastrophe was halted by fire breaks built in the years following the pine beetle epidemic. These clear-cuts, which stretch about 500 feet from the subdivisions into the national forest, kept the Buffalo fire at 91 acres. Within five days of the fire starting, containment was at 75 percent.
It's been a different story in La Plata County.
Nine hours after the 416 fire started on June 1 north of Durango, it already had consumed 1,100 acres. By Saturday morning, officials reported it had grown to 8,691 acres. Overnight, it exploded, doubling in size to 16,766 acres.
Just 20 percent contained nearly three weeks after it started, the 416 fire is now at 32,959 acres. Another wildfire in the area - the Burro fire - has threatened to merge with the 416 fire, growing to 3,484 acres since it started June 11. It remains only 10 percent contained.
While different, the fires in Summit and La Plata counties have the same message for Colorado and the West: there's no time to waste dealing with climate change and the wildfires it's fueling.
Sending a message
Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs described his community as "a model for proactive wildfire prep."
The county offers fuel reduction grants, free wood chipping and money for such things as erosion prevention and cisterns where there are no hydrants through Summit County CSU Extension. The funds have supported 148 different projects worth $5 million since 2006 and allowed 50 percent of its residents to participate in the chipping program since 2014.
"I have two goals," said director Dan Schroder. "First, get fire on people's mind. Even if they put out one stick for chipping, they're think about it. Second, let's get some fuel removed."
Summit County had no choice after about 50 percent of the White River National Forest was decimated by the pine beetle epidemic beginning in the late 1990s.
Threats to forest health, prime real estate and the county's recreation-based economy spurred officials into action. Bill Jackson, Dillon District ranger, estimated the Forest Service has clear-cut and thinned 1,200 acres, including the area that saved thousands of residences during the Buffalo fire.
"After the bug epidemic that came through, several fuel breaks around (Wildernest and Mesa Cortina) were placed in there and those fuel breaks right now are saving several thousand homes, probably," Jim Genung, incident commander from the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit said the night the fire broke out.
In the thousands of untreated acres are parched toothpicks waiting to fall at the slightest disturbance. In the Eagles Nest Wilderness, the problem is worse than most other areas because mitigation work has to be done by hand. Under the Wilderness Act, neither motorized vehicles nor mechanized equipment - which includes chainsaws and trucks to haul away timber - can be used in wilderness areas.
If conditions remain the same, Summit County has little to worry about from the Buffalo fire. If winds blowing north pick up though, the fire could spread farther into the Eagles Nest Wilderness, complicating containment.
"A southerly wind would put the fire in wilderness, which is thick forest that we haven't been able to give much attention to," Jackson said. "It would put our firefighters at serious risk to go in there."
Exceptions rarely are made for mitigation work. During emergencies like fire, they're possible, though the decision runs through a long chain of command - usually up to Forest Service's regional office near Denver.
"We take (making those exceptions) seriously even when we're fighting fires because of the character of wilderness," Jackson said.
In the area of the 416 fire, pine beetle-affected trees pose less of an issue. Though the Weminuche Wilderness near Wolf Creek Pass has been hard hit by beetle kill, Cam Hooley, spokeswoman for the San Juan National Forest, said only small portions of the area of the 416 fire contain beetle kill.
The problem in the San Juan National Forest is the same in forests across Colorado: high density of old-growth trees that carry fires into the canopy and burn at high temperatures. One hundred years of fire suppression has kept these trees alive, creating the conditions that are ripe for infrequent, but massive fires.
"We're really good at being fire suppressors," said Camille Stevens-Rumann, an assistant professor specializing in forest and rangeland stewardship at Colorado State University. "Though we can make up some of the deficits by doing fuels treatments, it's costly, in terms of manpower and dollars. It's hard to get the large treatments we need to affect large wildfires."
Access is further complicated by the restrictions placed on the Hermosa Creek Wilderness and Hermosa Creek Special Management Area. Though the designations were only established in 2014, the areas have been roadless since 2002. Even in sections where mechanized and motorized equipment was once allowed, hauling it all out isn't feasible.
The hazards created by the terrain and fuel composition shifted the priority to defending the properties and other assets on the east side of U.S. 550 between Hermosa and Purgatory. Though 2,156 evacuations were ordered, not a single structure has been lost.
"I can't believe the job that these firefighters have done. It's remarkable," Hooley said.
During June and July, Cheryl and Miles Lillard usually see three to four Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad trains pass by their home in the Rockwood Estates off U.S. 550. The coal-powered, steam locomotives carry thousands of tourists each summer through the canyons and forests between Durango and Silverton.
Hot spots from embers and sparks thrown off by the train are common.
"We often see a plume of smoke that gets a bucket of water quickly thrown on it. White smoke comes out of it, and that's it," she said.
On June 1, though, she said she saw "dark smoke" that glowed red on the perimeter. Soon after, Rockwood Estate's caretaker told the Lillards that "he didn't like the looks of the smoke." The former New Mexico Hotshot, who has spearheaded mitigation work in the development, told them to gather their things and be ready to evacuate.
About five hours later, a sheriff's deputy shouted through a bullhorn that the Lillards and their neighbors needed to get out. They grabbed the essentials, plus family photos, heirlooms and the mementos they cherished, packed up the car and left.
"When we drove away, I looked at the house like, "Uh oh. Is this the last time?" Cheryl said.
After two days in town, the Lillards left for a friend's house in Scottsdale, Ariz. Though they are one of 800 homes and businesses whose evacuation has been lifted, they chose to stay out of state after a neighbor told them the smoke is "unbearable."
"The house looks OK. We are relieved," Cheryl said in a text Friday.
The official cause of the fire is undetermined. Many La Plata County residents blame the train, though, which regularly spits out embers and other flammable particulates that are usually put out by a water tender. In summer, the railroad leases a helicopter to monitor the tracks.
The train's owner, Al Harper, told The Durango Herald that he recognizes the possibility of the train being at fault.
"This is our home," Harper said. "No one feels worse about what's going on than I do."
Harper's business is feeling the pain. The operator canceled the 31,000 reservations it had for June, spokesman Christian Robbins said. Though it is undetermined whether the train will be able to resume operating next month, the Incident Management Team doesn't expect to have the fire contained until the end of July.
Last July, 35,451 people rode the train. "It's too soon to see the impacts of this fire on tourism in Durango and La Plata County overall," said Theresa Blake, the Durango Area Office of Tourism spokeswoman, "but there's no doubt that our industry and our community are being impacted and that small businesses are feeling it here."
Outdoor retailers and outfitters feel the impacts first, Blake said. Duranglers Flies and Supplies, which guide fishing trips and have a retail shop in downtown Durango, has canceled its trips planned on rivers across the Southwest and seen a decrease in foot traffic at the outfitter's storefront in downtown Durango, said the shop's manager, Rob Schmidt.
"Things have been getting better this week, but last week was pretty slow," he said.
Amy Roberts, executive director of Outdoor Industry Association, described it as a "double whammy" to outdoor recreation-based economies.
"When people recreate, they bring money into the communities that aren't related to that activity," she said. "Whether that is increasing business, and thus livelihoods, for local citizens or bringing in fees associated with using public lands, it's a lot of money."
In Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, which includes La Plata County, $2.19 billion was spent on recreation, OIA reported in April. In the 2nd Congressional District, where Summit County is located, $2.51 billion is spent per year on recreation. Statewide, that figure tops $28 billion.
Schmidt and other outfitters' trips planned in the San Juan National Forest are impossible. The Forest Service closed access to San Juan Wednesday after implementing Stage 3 burn restrictions. The fire was only one factor in the decision, Hooley said.
"There's a number of considerations in making this decision, including weather patterns, drought, fuel moisture levels, the availability of firefighting resources, things like that."
The Forest Service undoubtedly met the criteria for Stage 3. More than 1,000 firefighters from across the country were staged on the 416 fire and the county is considered to be in severe drought. Much to the dismay of hikers, bikers, hunters, fishermen and other recreationists, the forest closed for the first time in its 113-year history.
"We can't have more human starts (of fires)," Hooley said.
Some of Duranglers other cancellations are a result of a misperception of where the fire is burning, Schmidt said. Many customers have called Duranglers thinking that the city of Durango, and even the entire southwest corner of the state, was "up in flames."
"I've had to explain repeatedly that the fire is 10 miles from Durango, that we haven't lost any homes or structures and that there are still plenty of places we can get a good day of fishing in," he said.
Colorado politicians want that message delivered across the country. Gov. John Hickenlooper said Wednesday that Durango was "open for business."
Once in town Friday afternoon under clear blue skies, he was even more confident in his declaration.
It was a severe event, but, with the help of the rain in the forecast, I think we've got it under control," Hickenlooper said. "Soon, I can go out and say the fire came, we beat it and are open for business."
Closer to the fire, though, smoke is still a problem.
In town, the blanket of smoke obscuring the surrounding mesas usually lifted by 9 a.m. during the second week of the fire. For the first couple of days, though, Schmidt said the smoke lingered until closer to 11 a.m. or noon.
"It's better this week, but it was pretty bad at one point."
'The new norm'
Once the fire is out, the danger doesn't end. Denuded burn scars are vulnerable to flash flooding and severe sedimentation, which threaten homes, watersheds and other infrastructure.
While most people rejoiced Saturday when a light rain began to fall in La Plata County, Office of Emergency Management Director Butch Knowlton warned residents not to let their guard down.
"We have totally exposed soils right now with no water retention capability," he said. "When that water comes, it picks up debris, ash and other floatable material like rocks and branches and dumps it into the lower-lying areas. Those areas are private properties."
He continued: "It's critical people be alert and understand that you might not be near the fire perimeter but are still in danger. It's not a time to be complacent."
The Forest Service already is in contact with emergency rehabilitation specialists and is "ready to ramp up mitigation," Hooley said.
Beyond the summer, many fear that the pairing of a low snowpack winter and high fire danger summer that is exacerbated by climate change is becoming the new norm.
"If this is an anomalous year, it's not too big of a concern," said Stevens-Rumann. "But based on climate projections, this is the new norm."
Blake said, "We're absolutely concerned about how climate change will impact Colorado tourism industries. We need to get out in front of it."
The question now is how land managers prepare to live in a world of fire. For Stevens-Rumann, that means normalizing prescribed fires and the smoke emanating from them.
"There's no way going forward that we're going to have less fire, so we have to think about how can we make fires most effective as they can be," she said.
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