A fast-moving wildfire torched 100 acres and led to the evacuation of 170 homes Wednesday west of Durango, and firefighters braced for another tough day on Thursday.
Smoke billowed above the hills and made for interesting sunset photos, and eventually settled into valleys as far away as Pagosa Springs, 50 miles to the east.
The fire was reported at 4:06 p.m. in the 1200 block of Lightner Creek Road (County Road 207), a couple of miles west of Durango city limits. Within 1½ hours, it had grown to 25 to 50 acres and “spotted” to form a second fire.
Fire managers plan to fly an aircraft Thursday morning to map the perimeter of the fire and look for hot spots, which will help them target their resources. Command of the fire is expected to be turned over to the state of Colorado.
Residents can expect at least one heavy air tanker, a helicopter and two small air tankers flying above the blaze Thursday, said Scot Davis, spokesman for the Durango Fire Protection District.
“We’ve reserved the same resources for air support tomorrow (Thursday),” he said. “We’ll definitely have an air show.”
The fire started at a house and spread into the surrounding wilderness, Davis said. No injuries were reported.
The cause of the fire remained under investigation Wednesday night, he said.
Neighbors Jack and Hope Schirard reported hearing three loud booms back to back, as if it were a gas explosion. Within about 20 minutes, a neighbor’s home was consumed in fire, they said.
The home was owned by Christine Polinsky, who purchased the property in 2014 for $831,000, according to the La Plata County Assessor’s Office. The 4.2-acre lot has a main house and several smaller structures near the corner of county roads 207 and 208.
Efforts to reach Polinsky for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday night. A friend said she was safe but worried about her pets. The friend said Polinsky owns a commercial cleaning company in Durango.
Residents on county roads 206, 207 and 208 were evacuated, with the exception of the Westwood Apartments, near the intersection of County Road 206 and U.S. Highway 160. Many other residents were put on “pre-evacuation notice,” meaning they may have to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
The American Red Cross set up a shelter at the La Plata County Fairgrounds, where more than 100 residents had checked in as of 8:30 p.m. Wednesday; officials said they expected 15-20 people to stay the night.
The fire calmed Wednesday night, which is normal for nighttime conditions, which include cooler temperatures, lower wind and increased humidity.
Air support was cut short Wednesday evening because someone was flying a drone over the burn area, near the Rockwood subdivision, Davis said. Police and firefighters were searching for the pilot.
Wednesday was a red flag warning day, meaning it was hot, windy and low relative humidity. Thursday is expected to be the same, Davis said. The fire has plenty of fuels and is burning in rugged terrain, making air support all the more important, he said.
In anticipation of Thursday’s conditions, RockRidge subdivision was placed on pre-evacuation notice at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“It had all the active ingredients for a fire that wanted to keep moving,” Davis said.
While many homes are evacuated, none are in immediate danger, Davis said. Most were evacuated as a precaution and because firefighters need to do mop-up work in the area, he said.
Staff writers Jonathan Romeo, Mia Rupani, Mary Shinn and Alex Semadeni contributed to this report
The La Plata County Humane Society needs cat and dog food and cat litter for animals that were evacuated from the Lightner Creek Fire. Many of the animals have been taken to the Humane Society. You can donate at 1111 South Camino del Rio. Horses are being housed at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.
San Juan Basin Public Health Department advises that smoke from the fire may cause problems for those with heart disease, respiratory illnesses, the very young, and the elderly. Consider limiting outdoor activity; people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion. Consider relocating temporarily if smoke is present indoors and is making you ill.
Other tips to protect yourself:
Close windows and doors and stay inside. However, do not close up your home tightly if it makes it dangerously warm inside.
Only if they are filtered, run the air conditioning, your evaporative cooler, or the fan feature on your home heating system (with the heat turned off). Keep the outdoor air intake closed and be sure the filter is clean. Filtered air typically has less smoke than the air outdoors. Running these appliances if they are not filtered can make indoor smoke worse.
As temperatures cool in the evening, inversion conditions worsen and smoke in low lying areas may become thicker, especially if the outdoor air is still. It tends to be worst near dawn.
Close bedroom windows at night.
To prepare for nighttime smoke, consider airing out your home in early to mid afternoon when smoke tends to be more diluted. Use your best judgment. If smoke is thick during the day, follow the tips above.