Last week, the Little Sand Fire was a small fire started by a lightning strike that the U.S. Forest Service believed could be managed for the benefit of the resources in the area.
Several days of low relative humidity and high winds later, the fire is an uncontained wildfire that is being fought by nearly 250 fire personnel from around the region.
As of press time Wednesday, the fire had reached 3,754 acres.
The fire, located in the Piedra area approximately 14 miles northwest of Pagosa Springs, started from lightning on May 13.
At the time, the fire was deemed to be small enough and in a remote region, making it eligible to be managed for the benefit of the natural resources and kept within a defined area.
It was, at that point, being managed by a Type 3 Incident Management Team consisting of primarily local resources, including from Bayfield and Durango.
But low relative humidity, warm temperatures and winds sweeping up the valley pushed the fire — growing 1,655 acres on May 26 alone. Since, it has grown an average of 400-500 acres per day.
The rapid growth, as well as the fire’s proximity to structures in the area and the rugged terrain, then signaled the call for a Type 2 Incident Management Team (trained to deal with more complex fires) to continue management of the fire.
That team, primarily from the Rocky Mountain region but including an Incident Commander from the Black Hills of South Dakota, took over command of the fire at 7 p.m. on Sunday evening.
With that management team came safety, medical, information, mapping, fire behavior, meteorology, strategic operations, aviation, finance and logistics officials, transforming Archuleta School District 50 Joint’s Maintenance and Transportation building (MAT) near the high school into a city, of sorts, accommodating 243 personnel.
From the catering truck that feeds firefighters three 3,000-calorie meals a day to a portable shower truck to the tent neighborhoods surrounding the MAT — crews involved with the Type 2 team are prepared to stay up to 14 days, though the fire will likely burn beyond that mark.
While the team could manage the fire for up to 14 days, should Kevin Khung, Pagosa District Ranger, and Mark Stiles, San Juan Forest Supervisor, determine that the fire is in a condition to be handled locally or with other available resources (such as another Type 3 team), the Type 2 team could be dismissed, said Incident Commander Todd Pechota Wednesday.
In the meantime, the management team is following several basic objectives, some of which were detailed by Jay Miller, who works with operations planning — to maximize safety of the firefighters and public, and minimize potential impacts to private land and infrastructure.
While the terrain may be, “As steep as a cow’s face,” according to Pechota (as said at a meeting updating the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners Tuesday), Miller said the Piedra River and Piedra Road are the most “logical” lines around part of the fire and allow for defensible space.
Additionally, a line was completed Tuesday stretching along Trail Ridge and other natural barriers are being used when possible.
Additionally, Miller said a structure protection specialist is assessing each building endangered by the fire, calling for various levels of fire protection when needed, ranging from brush clearing to water pumps to wrapping buildings.
Miller said there is, “still quite a bit of work,” for structure protection crews and that they would probably be hard at work through the rest of the week.
As of Wednesday morning, 40 buildings, including outbuildings, were threatened by the fire.
The nearest buildings to the fire are located at the V.A. Poma Ranch, which is about two miles from the northern portion of the fire.
Sportsman’s Supply and Campground is also relatively near the fire, but is located across Piedra Road and the Trail Ridge line from the southeast portion of the blaze and is not under any evacuation notice or immediate danger.
The fire is primarily burning fuels along the ground, with relatively little crown fire throughout the burn area, officials said.
Daily strategic plans are made for the fire based on weather, fire behavior and the proximity of private lands and structures, as well as other variables.
Also helping with the planning, if necessary, are infrared flights, which read the temperature of the burn at night (when the temperatures contrast more than during warm days) with thermal cameras, Pechota said.
Pechota explained that, if needed, an infrared flight can be requested from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, with flights sometimes flying over several fires in a single night.
The flight also helps to map the fire.
The hottest section of the fire as of Wednesday morning was the southern portion, where the fire is backing against the wind toward the Piedra River.
Pechota said crews are going on the offensive when possible without exposing themselves to risk. Thus far, a twisted knee is the worst injury reported, with no injuries since the arrival of the Type 2 team.
In addition to short-term, daily plans, Pechota said long-term plans are in the works that will provide later management teams with pre-developed management plans to work from.
Those plans, Pechota said, are based on fire actions and resources that may be available, including air and ground, to react to trigger points the fire meets.
“It’s going to be here for a while,” Pechota said of the fire, adding that the fire would not be abandoned.
Currently, the fire is far from abandoned — as anyone willing to brave the smoke for a day in the area can attest.
The Williams Creek and much of the Piedra area continue to be open to day use, though the campgrounds are currently closed and camping outside of the campgrounds is strongly discouraged.
Residents in the Weminuche Valley were given pre-evacuation notice Saturday, meaning they should be ready to leave within 15 minutes, should the need arise.
As of Wednesday morning, the official cost of the incident to date was estimated at $725,000. Because the fire is on public lands at this point, the government is likely to foot the bill, though no official arrangements have been made public.
Not included in the total, however, is any blow dealt to the local economy over the holiday weekend, both at the site of the fire and in Pagosa Springs, that may or may not have occurred.
Caitlin Swanda of Sportsman’s and Crazy Horse Outfitters said the fire has not affected their profits negatively due to the increased traffic curious about the fire.
In fact, Swanda said, “It was the best Memorial Day we’ve had in twenty-four years.”
The Poma Ranch has not thus been affected negatively, staff said, but it is anticipated that that would change by the weekend, with incoming guests likely not showing up.
Cooperating agencies on the fire include Hinsdale County, Archuleta County, the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado State Forest Service.
And while the fire is ultimately healthy for the forest it is now burning, it also serves as a reminder that diligence can prevent human-caused fires.
Khung reminds the public that, when recreating, follow any fire bans that may be in place and — if campfires are allowed — practice “dead-out” techniques before leaving a fire.