The 416 Fire and memories of 2002 — and 1879 — @JonnyPeace

From Jonathan P. Thompson:

Someone noticed a puffy cumulonimbus cloud rising up in the gap formed by the Animas River gorge and gave a little cheer. Winter and spring had been freakishly dry and warm, and we really could have used the rain. Something was off about the cloud, however, and we all grew quiet. It wasn’t a cloud at all, but a billowing tower of smoke.

That was 2002 and the smoke was from the Missionary Ridge Fire, ignited that afternoon on a slope about 35 miles south of where we sat. Over the coming weeks, the blaze would eat through 73,000 acres of parched scrub oak and aspen and conifer forest along with 83 structures. The local tourism economy, already dampened by the Dotcom bust and the 9/11 attacks of the previous year, was battered. It would be remembered as southwest Colorado’s summer of discontent.

Memories of and comparisons to that summer emerged last week when the 416 Fire broke out just across the valley from where the Missionary Ridge Fire was sparked 16 years earlier. The comparisons, unfortunately, are apt. Precipitation for the 2018 water year (which started Oct. 1, 2017) has thus far mostly mirrored 2002. Flows on the Animas River are slightly better than they were 16 years ago, but only slightly (see accompanying graphs). The conditions are therefore in place for a rerun of that smoky summer.

At this point, however, the 416 Fire does not appear to be a Missionary Ridge repeat, at least in terms of severity. The 2002 blaze was started by an errant spark, possibly from a car’s exhaust pipe, in the early afternoon of June 9, and it had blown up to 6,500 acres within hours. As I write this, the 416 Fire is spreading much more slowly, having charred 2,400 acres — and no homes — after four days of burning. High winds and hot temperatures could change all of that, of course.

The cause of the 416 Fire remains unknown. Embers from the coal-fired narrow gauge train that travels between Durango and Silverton are a fire hazard, yet the US Forest Service has reported the ignition point as being in the right of way of Highway 550, meaning the fire just as easily could have been started by a motorist’s tossed cigarette butt. In any event, the railroad and the tourism economy that depends on it will be affected. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge RR officials say they won’t run the train until June 10 at the earliest, and after that will use a diesel locomotive — to the displeasure of authenticity-seeking passengers. (UPDATE 6/6: InciWeb continues to list fire cause as “unknown,” but the coordinates it gives for the fire, and witness accounts, indicate that the fire started near the railroad tracks, not long after the train passed, far from Hwy 550. Also, the D&SNGRR announced on 6/5 that train service will be suspended until at least June 17.)…

It’s certainly too early to guess how big of a blow the 416 Fire — and any other fires to follow — will have on the regional economy. Still, it’s a tough break coming after a thin ski season and at the beginning of what will surely turn out to be a rough one for commercial rafters, with or without any more fires. It’s also a potent reminder that climate change is bad for a lot of things, including the local economy.

While 2018 is shaping up to mirror 2002, it also closely resembles another dry and disastrous time — the summer of 1879. No one was keeping official tabs on the weather or snowpack or streamflows back then, but from anecdotal and newspaper reports, we can gather that the 1878-79 winter was just as dry and warm as 2017-18. And the results were equally smoky: In early June of that year, a blaze broke out a few miles north of where the current 416 Fire is burning. It ended up charring 26,000 acres of relatively high-altitude forests.

To read more about the Lime Creek Burn, and the way it was used in anti-Ute propaganda; the local community’s love/hate relationship with the tourist train; and a heck of a lot more, get a copy of my book, River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

From The Durango Herald (Shane Benjamin) via The Cortez Journal:

Federal firefighters have not released the cause of the 416 Fire. A federal wildfire information database, InciWeb, lists the cause as “unknown.” A longitude and latitude entered into the database pinpoints the fire just west of the train tracks in an area where nothing else is around. Chione confirmed that is about where the fire started.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is not taking responsibility for the fire, but that could change based on the outcome of local and federal fire investigations, General Manager John Harper told The Durango Herald on Tuesday…

The U.S. Forest Service in conjunction with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Land Management are conducting the investigation, according to an email sent Tuesday from Cam Hooley, acting spokeswoman for San Juan National Forest.

“A team of trained investigators was on scene as soon as Friday night, the day of ignition,” she wrote in the email to the Herald. “USFS investigators include both local and regional personnel. Because of the size of the fire, the cost of suppression and the impact on the community, the investigation team will take the time needed to conduct a comprehensive and thorough investigation before any determinations are released. No timeline has been given for release of information.”

Chione and his neighbors often spot fires started by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The Meadowridge subdivision, with eight houses, sits only a couple hundred feet east of the train tracks and is located on a steep grade between Hermosa and Rockwood – an area known locally as Shalona Hill.

Locomotives work hard to power up the mountain, and some hot cinders from the coal-fired engine land on the ground and start little fires. A pop car typically follows each train three to five minutes behind the train to look for fires. Five minutes behind the pop car is a water tender that can douse flames, if necessary.

It is not unusual for the train to start spot fires through this section of track, Chione said. In fact, residents are so aware of the fire danger that they converted an old insecticide spray truck into a brush truck that can spray water to help douse the spot fires.

When he sees a fire, Chione typically calls his neighbor, Cres Fleming, who either walks down to the tracks to help extinguish flames, or if the fire is more serious, drives the water truck to the tracks to help douse the blaze.

“I got a call on Friday morning after the second train had come by that there was a small fire at the bend in the tracks,” Fleming said. “I high-tailed it over there with the truck, and as I came up on the railroad tracks, I saw the fire was probably 35 feet up the hill from the tracks. The railroad patrolman was there on his radio, I guess letting dispatch know what was going on. The fire at that point was really too much for his small sprayer that he had on that first pop car.”

Flemming unraveled the hose on his make-shift water truck, but he had a water-pressure problem. By the time the hose was working, the fire had advanced 80 or 90 feet up the hill – beyond the reach of his sprayer.

“It was moving incredibly fast,” Fleming said. “I fired a stream of water and dragged a hose up the hill, which is hard for me because I’m not exactly young any more.

“I feel sort of heartbroken that I just missed putting that fire out because I know it has really caused a lot of problems for a lot of people,” Fleming said. “If I had been there a minute earlier, I think I could have gotten it.”

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