Fire conditions continue to smolder

map courtesy of U.S.F.S./BLM

By Michael Maresh Journal staff writer

It could be 2002 all over again, fire officials are warning. That warning has been sounding for more than a month.

In 2002, the Missionary Ridge Fire in the Durango area began and spread because of the dryness of the area, and with no rainfall expected in the near future, Montezuma County fire officials are on high alert.

Back in 2002 a plume of thick smoke rose up above the Animas Valley north of Durango on June 9. Flames 150 feet high raced over Missionary Ridge toward the Florida River drainage, and the fire burned close to 71,000 acres of forest land before it was contained.

Montezuma County Deputy Emergency Manager Paul Hollar said the potential for a large wildfire of this magnitude in the county right now is something that cannot be dismissed.

He said the fuel levels needed for a wildfire is ripe and pointed out that there is no moisture in sight. He added both of these factors are alarming.

He said the beetle kill problem in the forest pales in comparison to the dry weather that has affected the region and the state.

“We have no moisture, and it is not going to get any better until August,” he said.

But with moisture comes some additional concerns as lightning and rain accompany each other, Hollar said. He added that lightning could prove disastrous.

He said a single dry lightning strike is what caused the massive High Park fire in northern Colorado. The blaze has grown to be the third largest in Colorado history with more than 68,000 acres burned. The fire has also destroyed at least 189 homes.

Since fire departments and officials have no control over the weather, Hollar said they have to deal with the human factor to try to minimize the impacts if a fire were to begin in the area.

Hollar said people should be extremely careful and adhere to the fire restrictions that are now in place.

He also said there is not just any specific forests that are in more danger than other ones for the simple reason that the entire region is dry and therefore in danger.

“Right now the whole Southwest region is (dry) with the same potential,” he said.

Meteorologist Jim Andrus said it has been quite dry in Cortez and Montezuma County during the last two months.

Andrus said the last measurable amount of rain occurred May 8 when .03 inches of rain fell. Normally, Montezuma County averages 1.071 inches of rain for the month of March, and he added there has been no measurable amount of rain in June in the area that averages .43 inches of rain for the month.

He said there is a 20 percent chance that the Four Corners could see some rain this weekend because of a small monsoon that is occurring in Arizona, but added that even if the storm reaches this area it would not bring a significant amount of moisture.

The monsoon season in Montezuma County runs from the middle of July to September, which means Cortez and the surrounding area is three to four weeks away from the monsoon flow. He added the county averages 1.23 inches of rain in July and 1.37 inches of rain in August.

“It’s been very dry,” Andrus said. “It’s been 43 days since we have had any rain at all. That is quite abnormal.”

Hollar recommends to residents to just be careful and cautioned them to keep piles of firewood away from their homes and to be careful and aware of their surroundings, as a single spark from an all-terrain vehicle could result in a fire that could spread quickly.

Montezuma County, like other counties in Colorado are following an order by Gov. John Hickenlooper that bans lighting fireworks because of the hot and dry conditions across the state, but stores and roadside stands are still allowed to sell them.

Ten years ago, the Missionary Ridge fire burned more than 70,000 acres, making it the second largest in Colorado history. That same year, the Hayman fire started on June 8 and became the worst-ever Colorado fire, burning more than 138,000 acres, which is 215 square miles.

He said it is the person’s responsibility to follow the law on not lighting fireworks.

Wildland Fire Education Specialist Rebecca Samulski said preparation before an emergency occurs, which includes having an evacuation kit and plan, is more important that doing anything to protect the home.

She said all homes should have a to go kit as well as a prioritized list near the front doors of what to grab if an evacuation order is given.

Samulski said it is the homeowner’s ultimate responsibility to protect their homes from a wildfire, and added local fire protection districts, Office of Emergency Management and Firewise of Southwest Colorado work together to provide residents with the tools and knowledge needed to save their properties.

Firewise of Southwest Colorado also recommends evacuating early with valuable papers, prescription medicines, and other special items and if there is time:

Remove combustible materials such as lawn furniture, doormats, garden accessories and tarps from decks around the house.

Close all doors and windows, pet doors, vents, and leave them unlocked for firefighter access.

Remove flammable drapes from windows and close shutters and blinds.

Disconnect garage door opener for firefighter access.

Leave the lights on so firefighters can see the home in the smoke.

Shut off natural gas or propane at the source.

Connect a garden hose and fill large containers with water inside and outside.

Make a ladder easily accessible to the roof on the leeward side of the oncoming fire.

Wet down vegetation within 30 feet of the home.

Samulski said she is available to answer questions from homeowners and to get them started to be better prepared at their homes, which she said can be done with just a phone call or a free on site home assessment.

Reach Michael Maresh at

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