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DFPD says Ute Pass Fire northeast of Durango was accidental, human-caused

A heavy-duty brush mower started the roughly 30-acre blaze
An air tanker makes a drop on the Ute Pass Fire on Friday northeast of Durango. Fire officials say a heavy-duty brush mower struck a rock and started the roughly 30-acre blaze. (Courtesy of Brett Stallings, via Facebook)

Fire investigators announced Tuesday the Ute Pass Fire was started by a heavy-duty brush mower that struck a rock, sending off a spark that ignited the roughly 30-acre blaze northeast of Durango.

The fire was ruled an accident.

The Durango Fire Protection District, along with Brenda Rice & Associates, a Durango-based wildfire origin and cause consultant, concluded the fire originated at 57 Ute Pass Trail when sparks from the mower landed in freshly cut vegetation.

In a news release, DFPD said the property owner was forthcoming and assisted investigators. The fire district will not pursue charges after determining the blaze was accidental.

“This fire tells us the how dry the vegetation really is and how susceptible we are to having a fire,” said DFPD Fire Marshal Karola Hanks.

The Ute Pass Fire was first reported shortly before 4 p.m. Friday afternoon before quickly growing to about 30 acres in size. About 60 residents of the Ute Pass subdivision and County Road 237 were forced to evacuate their homes as about 100 firefighters, a helicopter, two heavy air tankers, two dozers and a spotter plane battled the blaze on Friday into Saturday.

Evacuation orders for residents were lifted Friday evening.

DFPD performed the initial attack with state assistance on Friday before the state and a Type III incident team took over firefighting operations Saturday morning, DFPD Deputy Chief Randy Black said. After the state directed the response for about 36 hours, control of the fire returned to DFPD, he said.

The Ute Pass Fire perimeter as of 12:15 p.m. Monday.

The Ute Pass Fire was 80% contained as of Monday morning. Hanks said DFPD was hoping to have the fire 100% contained by Tuesday evening, but that development would depend on weather conditions.

The cost to suppress the fire is not yet clear, but the state will cover a significant portion of the cost under an interagency agreement, Hanks said. La Plata County does not yet know how much it will be required to pay for firefighting operations, said Ted Holteen, spokesman for La Plata County.

A final estimate will likely take weeks as different agencies account for the resources devoted to the fire.

“It takes a long time before the bills come in and we get it,” Black said.

No fire restrictions were in effect in La Plata County when the fire began Friday. A red flag warning issued earlier in the week by the National Weather Service expired Wednesday evening. Red flag warnings trigger automatic Stage 1 fire restrictions in La Plata County.

However, the property owner would still have been allowed to mow his or her lawn under the county’s Stage 1 fire restrictions, Hanks said.

DFPD expects that fire conditions in La Plata County will remain dangerous as forecasts show no significant moisture in the near future, Hanks said.

On Monday, the U.S. Forest Service announced on Twitter that the San Juan National Forest would be entering Stage 1 fire restrictions on May 25 because of rising temperatures, declining humidity and winds.

Stage 1 restrictions prohibit fires outside of the permanent fire pits installed by the Forest Service at developed recreation sites, among other activities.

“Every one of us who’s mowed a lawn has hit a rock at some point in life. However, it hasn’t been dry enough to create this scenario,” Hanks said. “But it is now.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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