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Update: Brush fire south of Cortez 80% contained

Fire started near County Road G.1 and Cortez Softball Complex
A brush fire south of Cortez started near the Cortez Softball Complex and reached the southern edge of the Hawkins Preserve. (Anthony Nicotera/ The Journal)

The Hawkins Fire that broke out Friday afternoon south of Cortez near remains at 80% contained, said Incident Commander Matt Shethar, of the Cortez Fire Protection District on Monday.

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said the wildfire is suspected to be human caused and is under investigation.

A perimeter has been established around the fire, Shethar said, but smoldering and smoking continues inside the perimeter. Eight firefighters and a brush truck remain on scene, and continue to monitor and control the fire to prevent it from jumping the fire line, he said.

A hot spot in McElmo Canyon flared up Sunday afternoon, said Cortez Fire Protection Chief Jay Balfour. Crews responded and suppressed it.

Fire officials estimated that it could take a few days to completely put the fire completely out.

The fire burned about 133 acres, according to a mapping flyover Saturday by the Colorado Division of Fire Safety and Control

The wildfire started near County Road G.1, and moved quickly in dry, windy conditions. No structures or livestock were lost, and there were no injuries.

“The fire departments did a great job saving homes,” Nowlin said.

The cause was “human carelessness,” Nowlin said Monday, and “a person of interest” has been identified. Officials were attempting to locate and interview the adult suspect Monday, Nowlin said.

The fire tore through brush, fields and pinon-juniper trees on private land, into McElmo Canyon and onto the southwestern edge of the Hawkins Preserve, public open space managed by the Cortez Cultural Center.

Fire behavior was extreme in places, Shethar said, including crowning in pinon-juniper trees, and single and group tree torching.

Three homes near the fire were evacuated, Nowlin said, and three others were on pre-evacuation orders. The evacuation orders were lifted by Friday evening.

“The fire burned right up to two homes. Fire crews were there to protect them,” Nowlin said.

Shethar said about 40 firefighters battled the blaze. Fire departments from Cortez, Lewis-Arriola, Dolores, Mancos, Durango, and Ute Mountain responded, as did the county sheriff department, Cortez Police and Colorado Division of Fire Safety and Control.

Two single-engine air tankers dropped fire retardant on the blaze, and a Type 3 helicopter made multiple water drops refilling at an irrigation ditch.

Initial reports estimated the fire to be about 300 acres. A flyover later mapped the size to be 133 acres.

First responders evacuated a woman and her dogs at the historic Mitchell Springs west of County Road 25, and pre-evacuations were underway for residents on South Oak Street in Cortez, according to Vicki Shaffer, Montezuma County Emergency Management Public Affairs Officer.

South Oak Street was closed from West Verde Vu Drive south to County Road H, the office said in a Facebook post Friday afternoon.

The emergency office advised residents to avoid the area of County Road 25/South Oak Street south of the city.

“Please avoid the area and watch for emergency response vehicles,” the office said in a Facebook post about 3:10 p.m.

The Hawkins fire smolders in the McElmo Creek area south of Cortez and Hawkins Preserve on Sunday. Crews mopped up and monitored the blaze, which reached 80% containment Saturday evening.

Firefighters from Cortez, Dolores, Lewis-Arriola, Mancos and Towaoc were on the scene. The Durango Interagency Dispatch Center had dubbed the blaze the Hawkins fire, named for the Hawkins Preserve, north of the fire.

Firetrucks from Durango also arrived on mutual aid.

Weather conditions remain hazardous. As of 6 p.m. Friday, humidity was at 9% and winds from the southwest continued at 12 mph, the National Weather Service said.

Helicopters were on the scene dumping water by the bucket, according to Shaffer.

Two single-engine airtankers arrived to assists as well.

According to Shaffer, Tri-State has restored power after some outages that reached from the Hawkins fire to the Summit Ridge area.

Tamara Desrosiers, who lives on South Oak Street, arrived to see that law enforcement had blocked the area off.

Police allowed her to drive to her home to retrieve her pets and some of her valuables.

“I drove down to my house and just started throwing photo albums, documents and passports and the computer,” Desrosiers said. “I had a little help, and we just loaded everything in the car.”

The smoke was heavy, and she noted that she saw neighbors from farther south along the street also were leaving with vehicles full of personal belongings.

“It’s been quite the afternoon,” Desrosiers said.

The National Weather Service’s Hazardous Weather Outlook predicted that conditions were unlikely to ease up.

“Strong southwest winds, above-normal temperatures and low relative humidity combined with later than normal green-up will bring critical fire weather conditions to much of western Colorado below 8,500 feet,” the outlook stated.

Prescribed burn north of Mancos

Also, on Friday, a prescribed burn, ignited by helicopter, was in progress at Haycamp Mesa, north of Cortez, along Forest Service Roads 556 and 390.

Smoke will be visible from Colorado Highways 145 and 184, as well as U.S. Highway 160 and the surrounding communities of Mancos and Cortez.

“We have two smoke monitor(s) operational and in place located downtown in Dolores and also at the Valley Inn Nursing Home in Mancos, CO, to monitor smoke levels required by the Colorado State smoke permitting process,” The county Office of Emergency Management said Friday in a Nixle alert.

The Journal will update this story as more information becomes available.