Firefighters responded Thursday morning to the Purple Cliffs homeless camp for a rapidly spreading fire. It was the second fire within 12 hours at the homeless camp, according to La Plata County officials.
Thursday’s fire broke out about 10:20 a.m. and was under control by 10:45 a.m., said Deputy Chief Randy Black, with Durango Fire Protection District.
Smoke was visible from Bodo Industrial Park.
“The crews were able to keep it isolated to a single camp,” Black said. “Luckily, it was close enough to the road we were able to access it pretty quickly and get water on it.”
The fire district responded with two engines, two brush trucks, two command vehicles and an ambulance, with nine DFPD staff members at the scene, Black said. No injuries resulted from the blaze. Additional trucks were canceled because crews were able to quickly contain the blaze.
The fire burned an approximately 30-foot by 30-foot area and destroyed a tent, mattress, furniture, multiple trees and anything else that was flammable at the campsite, Black said.
The Purple Cliffs camp is home to several dozen campers along La Posta Road (County Road 213) just south of Durango city limits. The city and La Plata County are working to shut down Purple Cliffs and create a managed camp near the Durango Dog Park, in part to reduce the risk of a wildfire.
Firefighters responded to another fire late Wednesday or early Thursday. In that one, residents used three fire extinguishers to douse the flames, and firefighters used a thermal-imaging camera to make sure it was fully out, Black said.
The fires demonstrate one of the “many concerns” La Plata County commissioners have with the Purple Cliffs camp and why it will be permanently closed to camping, the county said in a news release issued Thursday.
“The Board of County Commissioners has said many times that Purple Cliffs is unsanitary, does not conform to local or state land-use codes and laws, and is untenable. It was always meant to be a temporary location,” said Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton, in the release. “The fact that we had two fires at Purple Cliffs in one day shows once again why our community must put in place a managed camp that is much safer and much more contained in every respect. Further, we expect campers at Purple Cliffs to abide by all fire restrictions and common sense.”
No date has been set for the permanent closure of Purple Cliffs, but it is expected to happen before the end of summer 2022, according to the release.
Black said DFPD made a 50-foot fire break around Purple Cliffs last fall.
“It was a hot fire burning quick,” he said of Thursday’s fire. “Luckily, the winds weren’t that strong when we got there. If this would have (happened) two days ago, this would have been a different story.”
A combination of wind gusts surpassing 40 mph, dry vegetation and warming temperatures have led to hazardous fire conditions and frequent red flag warnings from the National Weather Service this spring.
Black said had responding fire crews been on another call or had winds been stronger, the blaze could have spread more than it did.
“The big problem on those days where it’s really windy is we can’t even use aircraft,” he said. “... That’s when you end up with conditions like you saw at the Marshall Fire on the Front Range, where it’s too windy for them to fly and the fire’s basically doing what it wants to do until the weather dies down.”
The key is to catch a fire before it takes off, he said.
“We can’t always do it,” Black said. “If this would have been a half-mile hike to get into it, this would have been a different fire.”
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, he said.