Durango Zone 2012 Fire Summary

By Kathleen Kemsley, Published by San Juan National Forest, December 2012

The 2012 fire season in Durango Zone was the busiest in ten years.  A less than average snowpack in the San Juan Mountains melted off some six weeks early in the spring, so conditions started out dry.  The first fire of the year, East Fork, burned 25 acres in early April at an elevation of 8500 feet on the Pagosa District.  This was a precursor of the extreme fire season to come.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA lightning storm moved through the Durango region on May 12, quite unusual for that time of year.  Seven fires popped up in the zone, including one near Little Sand Creek north of Pagosa Springs.  The Little Sand fire was reported to be burning in an inaccessible area of the Piedra drainage in heavy dead and down timber.  Wildfire Decision Support System (WFDSS) analysis led to a decision by resource managers to monitor and manage the fire rather than fully suppressing it.  After a week, it was still only ten acres in size.  Then on May 22 it began to move and grow.  Before the summer was over, Little Sand hosted a Type 2 team, two Type 3 teams, and a National Incident Management (NIMO) team.  It reached a size of 24,133 acres, making it the largest fire on the San Juan National Forest since 2002.

June was a month of record dryness.  Both the Burning Index and the Energy Release Component stayed above the 97th percentile across the zone.  Fire LittleSand2restrictions were put in place.  A human-caused fire on June 22 began on BLM land and quickly moved onto private land in Montezuma County.  The Weber fire grew over 700 acres on the first day.  Over 100 homes were immediately threatened and evacuations began.  A Type 2 team was ordered.  Rapid response from aircraft, crews, and engines kept structure losses to one outbuilding, but the fire burned 10,100 acres just north of Mancos before it was controlled a month later.  The next day, the State Line fire started near Bondad Hill on La Plata County and Southern Ute land.  The Type 3 team deployed to that fire and held it to 350 acres, again narrowly avoiding destruction of several nearby residences.

Lightning ignited numerous new fires in late June.  Quick response by resourcesAirpark1 diverted from Little Sand and Weber kept these fires from growing to hundreds of acres.  Finally, some rain arrived along with the lightning to slow down the spread of fires.  However, precipitation was spotty, as evidenced by the Air Park fire on Southern Ute lands which took everyone by surprise in late July.  This lightning fire near Nighthorse Reservoir burned in an area that had been missed by the summer rains.  It quickly spread to 500 acres, threatening 150 residences and 20 oil and gas wells.

August lightning ignited several extended attack fires from 5 to 40 acres in the Ute Burns1-2012-08-19_Mountain region, as well as one more large fire, Burns, which charred 170 acres on Archuleta County.  Finally the intermittent monsoon rains dampened enough of the zone to slow ignitions, and many of the zone resources headed north to Idaho, Montana, and northern California to assist on project fires up there.

By mid-August, Durango Dispatch had been in service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for nearly three months straight.  Both Expanded Dispatch and Buying Teams operated continuously out of the Sonoran Rooms of the Public Lands Center.  Between the Initial Attack operation and Expanded Dispatch, some 50 dispatchers came in from all over the country to help staff and support the ongoing fire activity.  It was not until early September that all the excess dispatch personnel were demobilized.  Things appeared to calm down, but that was not the end of the story.  The 2012 fire season still had one more big trick up its sleeve.

On October 12, the zone received over 9,000 lightning strikes, again an anomaly for that time of year.  Between October 5 and November 4, a total of 40 fires Goblin1were reported in the zone.  Four of the fall fires went large.   The biggest of these topped 1400 acres.  Expanded Dispatch and the Buying Team re-convened; local Type 3 teams were deployed to both Vallecito and Roatcap.  Extended attack also lasted for several days on the lightning-caused Little East and Cinnamon Bear fires, as well as the railroad-caused Goblin.  The zone ordered engines, crews, helicopters and air tankers to suppress these fires.  No one in Durango can remember ever fighting fires to that extent or magnitude, so late in the year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABalmy temperatures marked the entire month of November, and there was zero snow pack in the mountains below 9,000 feet at Thanksgiving.  As of mid-December, two large fires on the San Juan still smoldered, not having received enough precipitation to be called out.

Overall 2012 was a successful year for one so busy.  New Division Supervisors, Task Force Leaders, Type 3 Incident Commanders, and Initial Attack Dispatchers became qualified, while other firefighters opened task books toLittleSand3 begin working on higher qualifications.  The Durango Zone partner agencies hosted over 100 engines and 25 crews from as far away as Alaska, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.   At one point in late June, five air attack ships, four single engine air tankers, and ten helicopters were simultaneously working fires in the zone.  For all this activity, only a handful of minor incidents were reported.  It is commendable that everyone kept safety in the forefront during a year that was extremely busy not only here but everywhere in the Rocky Mountain geographic area.

Gila-Las Cruces Zone 2013 Fire Summary

By Kathleen Kemsley, published by Gila National Forest, December 2013

The 2013 fire season in the Gila Las Cruces Zone started out with a lot of potential.  Snowpack was minimal and melted early in the third straight year of severe drought.  Lack of fine fuels keptSilver_0627 wind-driven starts from spreading rapidly.  Early season fires were suppressed quickly.  A handful of lightning-caused starts on the Gila National Forest on May 10 and 11 were all kept to less than five acres.  The largest early season fire was McKinney, on State and private lands, which burned 153 acres of grass and shrubs near Tyrone on May 21.  With assistance from the Gila contingent of smokejumpers and several loads of retardant, firefighters saved 10 nearby residences.

By June 1, indices across the zone exceeded the 97th percentile.  The next round of lightning began June 4, producing three fires, including the Sawmill Canyon fire on Quemado District.  This Type 3 fire burned 42 acres and utilized several local engines and crews.

Gila1On June 7, five more lightning fires ignited across the forest.  Papoose and Indian, close to each other on Wilderness District, both grew to about 80 acres before efforts of several crews, smokejumpers, engines, retardant and helicopter support succeeded in containing them.

Meanwhile, the Silver fire was initial attacked the same day with two engines from Silver City District. The crews got a scratch line around the five acre fire by midnight on a moonless night.  Soon after that, some logs rolled out and ignited super-dry fuels on the steep slopes below.  The engine crews were forced to retreat for safety reasons.  The next day, 80,000 gallons of retardant were dropped on the growing fire.  The steep, rugged terrain prevented any crews from approaching the fire on the ground.  By the morning of June 9, the fire established itself in a bugkill-choked area of the forest that had not burned in more than 100 years.  Pushed by red flag level southwest winds, the fire took off and a Type 2 team was ordered.

The Silver fire was managed first by the Flagstaff Type 2 Team, then by the New Mexico Type 2Gila2 Team.  It burned over Emory Pass and threatened the community of Kingston.  The town was evacuated for ten days, but efforts by hotshot crews, engines, and retardant kept the fire out of the town.  During the next month, the Silver fire jumped Highway 152, burned past the Hillsboro Lookout, and moved into the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. No structures were destroyed.

The summer monsoon arrived in early July to moderate the fire’s spread.  By the time it was Gila3called contained on July 18, it had burned a total of 138,546 acres on the Silver City, Black Range, and Wilderness districts.  Besides the two Incident Management Teams and miscellaneous overhead from 19 states, the fire suppression operations utilized 15 Type 1 crews, 18 Type 2 and T2IA crews, 27 engines, 2 dozers, and 7 helicopters.  Expanded Dispatch and a Buying Team set up in the Silver City Supervisor’s Office conference room and were operational for 5 weeks.  Silver City Dispatch was staffed 24/7 with aircraft and initial attack dispatchers detailed from California, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, and Montana.

As the monsoon season wore on, lightning strikes ignited some 80 new fires on the forest, BLM, and State lands in July and August.  Initial attack was successful on all these fires.  A large Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation project was initiated to stabilize the slopes impacted by intense burning during the Silver fire.

Summer rains turned into a deluge in September, causing fire-scorched drainages in both theGila4 Silver fire scar and the Whitewater-Baldy fire scar of 2012 to flood.  On September 15, Mogollon RAWS recorded 9.1 inches of rainfall.  Forest roads were damaged, creeks went over their banks, and state highways became clogged with debris.  Affected areas included the Emory Pass road, the Gila Cliff Dwellings, the village of Mogollon, the Catwalk, and the area around Snow Lake.  Several stranded hikers and hunters were rescued and one man was swept to his death in a flash flood.  Rehabilitation of forest roads will be an ongoing project over the winter.

In summary, the total number of fires in the Gila-Las Cruces zone in 2013 was 160, less than the five-year average of 276.  This was due to the small number of BLM and State fires this year (only 40 between them), compared to their usual 123 or so, as well as a smaller than average number of starts on the Forest.  Acres burned this year totaled 140K, very close to the average of 150K over the past five years.  Of the 140,101 acres burned in the zone in 2013, 138,546 belonged to the Silver fire.  Initial attack was 98% successful in the zone.