After 13 days of wondering when good news for evacuees would come from the 416 Fire that started June 1, it came Wednesday.
Evacuation orders were lifted in the afternoon for 560 residences and 20 businesses in the Rockwood, Tamarron and Glacier Club areas.
And on Thursday, 375 residences and 19 businesses were taken off the evacuation list.
Joe and Lola Hardman returned to their Rockwood Estates home Wednesday after being evacuated June 1. The Hardmans shared several small hotel rooms for several days with their visiting daughters, Sasha, 21, and Nadia, 19, and their two Labrador retrievers, Pippa and Taz, before renting a home in Vallecito.
“We were just happy to get back. We were tired of living out of suitcases. You can imagine four people and two large Labs in small hotel rooms,” he said. Residents who live on the west side of U.S. Highway 550 from mile marker 33.5 at Honeyville north to the Glacier Club entrance at mile marker 39.5 were allowed to return. Homes and businesses on the east side of Highway 550 to the Animas River from Mead/Albrecht Lane north to Rockwood also were reopened.
To go home, residents must show their RapidTag credentials, which were available at various locations.
The residences and businesses will remain under pre-evacuation orders, and residents will be subject to the limited opening hours of Highway 550, which was to close at 8 p.m. Thursday.
The highway was scheduled to be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, with law enforcement escort.
Law enforcement escorts for through traffic on Highway 550 will continue during the re-entry period.
The 416 Fire grew to 29,147 acres as of Thursday morning. It remained 15 percent contained.
The fire had its first chance at precipitation on Thursday, though fire officials were doubtful the rains would have much of an impact on the 14-day-old fire.
Weather forecasters called for a 20 percent chance of rain, though they gave only a 5 percent chance for a “wetting rain,” said spokeswoman Jamie Knight.
Fire officials were more concerned that thunderstorms could produce dry lightning and bring gusty winds of 40 mph.
A red flag warning was in effect Thursday, meaning conditions would be hot, dry and windy. Weather forecasters issued a flash-flood watch from 9 a.m. Saturday until 12:01 a.m. Sunday.
“It’s likely there’s a little bit of moisture associated with those storms, but it’s going to be primarily dry,” Knight said. “With the storms comes the lightning and those gusty winds. We’re definitely asking the firefighters to keep their eyes open and their heads up and pay attention to any changes in the weather.”
Fire officials on Thursday monitored storm activity to see how it would affect planned back-burns. After heavy burnout activity on Monday and Tuesday that produced visible plumes, back-burns weren’t done on Wednesday.
“They are waiting to see how the weather progresses to determine if this is the day and the time to do those back-burns,” Knight said. “We want to make sure that what we do aligns well with all of the insets and parameters that we’re receiving.”
Crews continued to work along the southwest side of the fire near County Road 205, where the fire is most active. Fire officials praised the mitigation work done by residents beforehand that has helped firefighters defend homes along the fire’s path.
The fire also continues to spread north, though at a much slower rate than it has on the south side, Knight said. Officials have prepared fire lines in advance of Purgatory and residences in that area in case the fire continue to spread in that direction.
As the east side of U.S. Highway 550 becomes more secure, fire officials are pulling firefighters from the area to help on other parts of the fire. Crews will continue to patrol the corridor for hot spots and to watch for spot fires.
As the eastern portion of the fire has calmed, the fire has become more active in other areas. A pre-evacuation order was issued Wednesday evening for 207 residences and two businesses on the south end of the fire.
Fire officials said Wednesday they believe the 416 Fire won’t be contained until the end of July. They don’t expect residents to be out of their homes that long, but they also weren’t able to give an estimate on when people might be able to return home.
Over 1,000 fire personnel are battling the fire. Many firefighters have been working the fire for two weeks, meaning they’re about to time out and be given a break. Incident Commander Todd Pechota said he plans to bring in more crews to replace outgoing firefighters.
Highway 550 is open with limited access from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. today, dependent on weather conditions.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, and Rep. Scott Tipton will visit the Durango area Friday. They will visit with fire officials and meet with city and county officials.
The cost of fighting both the Burro and 416 fires was put at $10.9 million.