Update: New 416 fire boss talks strategy; Purgatory plans reopening

John R. Moses
The Daily Times
The crew members seen heading downhill are the Flagstaff Hotshots in this photo posted yesterday by the 416 Fire team on Facebook. New fire manager Alex Robertson, operations section chief of the Portland NIMO team, said many teams are rotating out after weeks of hard work.

FARMINGTON — Fire activity may increase today in the 34,224 acres of land scorched by the 416 Fire, but firefighters say things will look worse than they actually are if some areas inside the burn zone do catch fire.

“Today’s weather could support very active fire behavior where a source of ignition is present,” according to a morning update from new fire managers the Portland National Incident Management Organization. “Within the over 34,000 acres of burned area, there are multiple locations of smoldering dead/downed materials that serve as an ignition source."

A Red Flag Warning was issued today. Critical fire weather continues into Saturday, bringing temperatures in the 80s, single-digit humidity and wind gusts up to 25 mph.

The Purgatory Resort yesterday announced it plans to reopen soon and is contacting workers, and all evacuees are back to homes and businesses.

New fire boss talks strategy

The new operations chief gave his first online operational briefing this morning, explaining how the smaller force will ramp up its resources should that become necessary.

The south end of the fire has strong containment, and fire managers say they’re gauging what may happen on the north end, where crews have made extensive preparations to safeguard the Purgatory Resort and other areas should the fire spread that way.

“Folks are still looking very closely at the north end of the fire just to ensure that we know what it’s going to do… as it dries out from the rains, what it’s potential is,” said Alex Robertson, operations section chief of the Portland NIMO team.

Firefighter numbers have dropped from more than 1,000 over last weekend to 548, and the blaze is 37 percent contained with virtually no spread Thursday.

A lack of red shows the progress firefighters have made on the 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado. Just 40 acres were scorched yesterday.

“Most of the activity was up in the wilderness, high elevation," Robertson said. "We actually saw about 40 acres of fire growth total. All of that was in the wilderness.”

That happened on the fire’s western edge, Robertson said.

“We certainly do not feel we are out of the woods as far as potential for this fire to grow,” he said. “We think that as the season continues, and we continue to dry out from that moisture that we got, we’re going to pay really close attention to how the fire continues to move, and where it continues to move, so we’re prepared to deal with that problem when and if it happens.”

Smoke expected today, Saturday

Firefighters will monitor the fire from the air and keep a very close eye on the fire’s western edge, where the terrain is too dangerous to deploy fire crews. 

They say people should expect to see and smell some smoke.

“While it may appear alarming at first sight, smoke coming from the interior of the fire is generally not a threat,” the fire team wrote in the morning update, “and firefighters are monitoring this activity and will respond to concerning hotspots. Fire spread is predicted to the west and northwest, and this activity may intensify as fire weather behavior grows critical once again."

Fire crews, many of which are engaged in rehabilitating areas affected by firefighting operations and chipping brush cut during structure-protection operations, are standing by in case of flare-ups, like a recent one on the fire’s southern edge. They’re also removing logs and slash created when fire breaks were cut.

Three teams spent Thursday night camped out.

“In Division D (on the south end of the blaze), the Craig Hotshots continue to monitor hotspots that occurred on the south perimeter of the fire,” the report said. “Three hotshot crews spiked out last night near the Junction Creek (Road) and are in the area to monitor the southwest perimeter.”

Purgatory Resort to reopen

“While it’s been a challenging month of June, we’re excited to open again and offer our guests a great experience at Purgatory Resort,” Elizabeth Howe, director of operations for Mountain Capital Partners and Purgatory Resort, said Thursday in a press release. “We’re looking forward to our employees returning to the resort and welcoming back our guests.”

More details will be released next week.   

“Over the course of the next week, we’ll be getting the resort ready for the public, contacting employees, ordering supplies and ramping up our operations,” Howe said. 

“In addition, we’re actively working with the Forest Service on what activities Purgatory will offer guests beginning in July," she said. "We’re acutely aware that dry conditions continue to exist, and we’re committed to being good stewards of the environment.”  

The resort will modify activities as necessary because the San Juan National Forest is under Stage 2 fire restrictions, which ban outside smoking, campfires, using charcoal grills and other activities. La Plata County has adopted Stage 3 fire restrictions. 

“Purgatory is very grateful to the first responders, firefighters, and 416 Fire management team for all their efforts in battling the wildfire,” Howe said. “We appreciate everything they are doing to keep our community safe.”

All evacuated residents in La Plata and San Juan, Colorado, counties returned to their homes this week.

Many public lands, including the San Juan National Forest, that were closed due to drought conditions reopened Thursday and today.

U.S. Highway 550 remains open with no restrictions. For information on road conditions, visit www.cotrip.org.

La Plata County’s 416 Fire interactive map is at https://bit.ly/416fire.