A handful of residents from the 170 homes evacuated this week because of the Lightner Creek Fire west of Durango were allowed to return home Friday afternoon, but others were told it could be days before they can return.
Residents in 18 homes along County Road 206 were given the OK to return because it was deemed safe, said Megan Graham, a spokeswoman for La Plata County. They trickled in shortly after the evacuation order was lifted and said they were glad to be home.
“We are so thankful to the firefighters for all the hard work they did. All of the people we met when we couldn’t get back to our home were very nice and helpful. I just want to say that we have great people in Durango and I am so appreciative,” said Donald Pixler, who returned home with his wife, Marlene. “It was hard to imagine the house burning down, but now it’s hard to believe we can just walk back in.”
Displaced families living on Lightner Creek Road (County Road 207) and County Road 208 were told there is no timeline for evacuations to be lifted in those areas, but they were in good spirits at Friday’s community meeting at Escalante Middle School where the Red Cross has set up a shelter.
“We have been successful with a lack of injuries and a loss of structures. This has been a very successful operation,” Chief Hal Doughty of the Durango Fire Protection District told the crowd of more than 100 residents.
The fire remained at 20 percent containment on Friday, but good progress was made by fire crews because of improving weather conditions and the aerial firefighting done on Thursday, according to incident commander Shane Greer with the Type II team. The fire has burned about 360 acres.
The Type II incident command team, Rocky Mountain Team Black, took control of the blaze at 6 a.m. Friday.
“When we evacuate somewhere, it is easy. At the time, there aren’t many firefighters in the area. To put people back into an area, we have to be done with a lot of the firefighting stuff. We have to make sure it is safe so we don’t put you back in your homes and the fire rekindles,” Greer said. “That said, my first goal is to get you back as soon as possible.”
Greer said safety is a top priority for decisions on lifting evacuations. He also praised local responders for their quick response to the fire.
The pre-evacuation notice for the Dakota West and Westwood Apartments near the intersection of County Road 206 and U.S. Highway 160 also was lifted Friday.
The Rafter J and Rockridge subdivisions remain on pre-evacuation notice because of the terrain, said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith.
“Rafter J and Rockridge are difficult. Unlike county Road 207, there are lots of switchbacks. It can be difficult to get people out quickly, so out of an abundance of caution, we put those residents on pre-evacuation,” Smith said.
The pre-evacuation notice for those homes is expected to be lifted soon if fire conditions continue to improve, he added.
Firefighters carried out a ground assault along the perimeter of the wildfire on Friday.
The goal was to increase lines around the 362-acre blaze, said Chris Barth, spokesman for the fire.
Type II teams can summon greater resources and have more management experience to handle complex fires burning in the urban-wildland interfaces than Type III teams, he said.
The evacuation center was mostly used for people to get information and supplies, although 19 people stayed there Wednesday night and 12 stayed on Thursday night. A few were expected to stay there Friday night as well.
“I can’t get over how great the help has been,” said Clyde Doney, who spent both nights at the shelter. “Something like this makes me proud to be a Durangatang.”
Erich Nord was camping at Lightner Creek Campground with his son and the pair had gone fishing at Haviland Lake on Wednesday. They weren’t allowed to return home that night and stayed at the evacuee center both nights. The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office allowed him and other campers about 30 minutes to gather their things Friday morning.
“They handled it really well,” Nord said.
The Red Cross received a plethora of donations Thursday. The best donations now would be cash to the Red Cross, said John Noah, a Red Cross volunteer.
Businesses and tourism officials reported minimal repercussions as a result of the three-day fire, but on Friday afternoon, Durango city and fire officials called off this year’s Fourth of July fireworks show as a result of severe fire conditions and having to manage the Lightner Creek Fire.
Staff writers Shane Benjamin and Alex Semadeni contributed to this report.