Monsoonal rain patterns have moved into the area, evacuation orders and closures have been lifted, and command is again in the hands of local Forest Service personnel, signaling a victory of sorts over the Little Sand Fire nearly two months after its start.
The fire remains the largest uncontained wildfire in the state at 60 percent containment as of press time Wednesday, but has not grown in acreage since July 6, when public information provided by fire managers indicated a 100-acre growth over the previous day to 24,900 acres.
Since that time, much of the fire has been drenched with several inches of rain thanks to the early arrival of monsoonal moisture that has left, according to a press release on the fire, “isolated smoldering in heavy fuels.”
At 5:30 p.m. on July 8, the Hinsdale County Sheriff announced that all evacuation orders pertinent to the Little Sand Fire were lifted, allowing the residents of the Weminuche Valley to return home.
The announcement came on the heels of days of work by fire personnel to ready the ranches in the valley for re-entry — with sprinklers and other fire mitigation systems removed from the affected buildings.
Crews also worked to remove debris from affected roads and trails and to rehabilitate fire lines to restore them to conditions prior to the fire.
Mosca Road (Forest Road 631), which remains closed at the Weminuche Valley, however, and is still considered too dangerous to travel.
All other area closures and all trail closures stemming from the fire have been lifted, though caution is urged as hazards, including dead and dying trees, trail washouts and isolated hot spots. For more on the trails and roads that have been reopened, see related story on page A14.
With improved conditions over the Little Sand Fire, command of the incident was returned to the U.S. Forest Service, Pagosa Ranger District, Tuesday morning, July 10, at 8 a.m.
Brandy Richardson, Pagosa Ranger District spokesperson, said the forest service is primarily monitoring the fire from the road system.
Full containment of the fire is expected by July 27, according to a press release.
As weather patterns change and heavy fuels smolder or burn, Pagosa District Ranger Kevin Khung indicated at a July 5 meeting, smoke impacts in the area will fluctuate. Khung also indicated that the fire would not likely be deemed “out” until the area receives significant snowfall (six inches).
At that July 5 meeting with the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners, members of the prior incident management team discussed fire behavior, logistics and cost as they took a virtual flight around the fire.
Among the fire-related topics discussed was the method used in battling a blaze that grew though spotting, where burning embers were lifted outside of fire boundaries and landed on receptive fuels. Fire Behavior Analyst Jason Lunas called the methods, “smart management”.
With the spotting of the fire, Lunas said, the chosen management technique even with the presence of air resources and dozens of hot shot crews would have been the same.
“It’s not worth risking lives in a hopeless battle,” Lunas said.
Khung also discussed the logistics of putting the fire out when it was discovered at one-half acre on May 13.
To be effective against fire, Khung said, one inch of water is needed per square foot, as well as people on the ground to make mud.
To provide that level of water to the remote fire area, Khung said it would take 180 sorties, equating to 30 hours of helicopter use.
To soak the west side of the Weminuche Valley, as one property owner suggested, Khung said, would take 60,000 sorties treating 500 acres per day, equating to three days of work.
“You just couldn’t keep up,” Khung said of the fire growth at its peak.
Following the discussion on the behavior of the fire, which remained primarily in the understory with few crown runs, Lunas noted that the area, “couldn’t have burned better under a prescription.”
As of July 9, the cost-to-date of the Little Sand Fire rang in at $7.537 million, equating to just over $290 per acre.
As of the July 5 meeting, that cost sat at close to $250 per acre, with Lunas noting that the same area likely could not be burned under a prescription for that low of a cost.
A 2010 report published by Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, & Ecology indicates that, over a 20-year period, the average cost for fire suppression tactics was $582 per acre.
But, regardless of the cost, it has to be paid by someone.
At the July 3 regular meeting of the BoCC, the commissioners approved a cost-share agreement between Hinsdale County, Archuleta County and the U.S. Forest Service.
According to the agreement, “It is hereby agreed that the costs for managing and responding to the Little Sand Fire will be borne by each individual party respectively, and that no direct transfer of funds will be required. The U.S. Forest Service will be responsible for all costs associated with the management of the Little Sand Fire on national forest system lands. The U.S. Forest Service, Archuleta, and Hinsdale Counties mutually agree to share cost associated with the defensive tactics needed to mitigate threats to private property immediately north and east of the fire, however, all county participation in this effort will be in the form of in-kind contributions. These point-protection actions are intended to better enable safe, effective, and more cost-efficient fire management strategies on adjacent national forest while helping to ensure the safety of nearby residents and protection of private property.”
The agreement covers the period of May 26 through July 31.