Fire season is upon us

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Very little precipitation. 

Red flag warnings. 

It’s a combination that puts many locals on edge. 

Southwest Colorado experienced several red flag warnings recently. According to Accuweather, a red flag warning goes into effect when critical fire weather conditions are either occurring or will shortly. 

A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures can contribute to extreme fire behavior. 

On Tuesday of this week, the local humidity dropped to 11 percent.

The warm-up seems to be underway, with temperatures expected to climb into the 70s next week. 

It’s a combination that brings back memories of Missionary Ridge, Little Sand and the West Fork Complex fires. 

On June 9, 2002, the temperature was 86 degrees and humidity was 12 percent when a spark of unknown origin fell on the lower Missionary Ridge Road north of Durango. 

Thirty-nine days later, 46 homes and cabins were destroyed and nearly 73,000 acres were scorched by the fire. 

Ten years later, on May 13, 2012, a lightning strike ignited a fire in the Piedra area northwest of Pagosa Springs.

At first, U.S. Forest Service personnel let the blaze continue burning for the benefit of the natural resources, with the area previously identified as one in which fire would be allowed to play its natural role.

Several days of low relative humidity and high winds later, the fire — known as the Little Sand Fire — became an uncontained wildfire that had grown to several thousand acres and was being fought by hundreds of firefighters.

As the summer progressed, so did the fire, with roads, trails and campgrounds closed and evacuations called for some properties in the upper Piedra area.

By July 3, the fire had grown to 24,450 acres.

The following year, on June 5, 2013, the West Fork Fire was sparked by lightning west of the Continental Divide near Born’s Lake northeast of Pagosa Springs, in an area difficult to access. 

Eight days later, on June 13, the Windy Pass Fire began from a lightning strike 12 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs, near the Windy Pass Trail.

Three days later, the two fires were managed as the West Fork Complex.

On June 20, evacuations were announced and U.S. 160 over Wolf Creek Pass was closed.

The next day, on June 21, the town of South Fork was put under mandatory evacuation. Colo. 149 between South Fork and Creede was closed.

A third fire, the Papoose Fire, grew to more than 11,000 acres and was added to the management of the West Fork Complex on June 22.

Two days later, on June 24, members of the Colorado National Guard were called in to help.

On June 28, most residents of South Fork were allowed to return home. 

On June 29, U.S. 160 over Wolf Creek Pass and Colo. 149 reopened as desperately needed rain fell over the area and containment of the fire grew to 2 percent.

The last incident update for the West Fork Complex was July 19, 2013, with 66 percent containment and a total of 109,615 aces burned. 

Smoke continued to be visible in the region for days.

Smoke expected

Recent weather conditions bring back the memories of those smoke-filled skies and days and days of viewing billowing plumes of smoke. 

Wildfires have already erupted in the Southwest that are expected to push smoke into our region.

The Tunnel Fire in Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Ariz., grew to 21,215 acres and was 20 percent contained on Tuesday evening. 

Prescott National Forest’s Crooks Fire increased to 6,454 acres with 16 percent containment on Tuesday.

Just south of Archuleta County, in the Santa Fe National Forest, the Cerro Pelado Fire had burned 5,485 acres with zero containment. 

The Calf Canyon Fire in the Santa Fe National Forest reached 60,173 acres and 12 percent containment on Tuesday. 

For information on wildfire smoke and your health, visit: https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/wildfires/smoke.html.

Communities destroyed

We’ve seen communities destroyed by wind-driven wildfire.

In December, one of those wind-driven wildfires burned hundreds of homes near Boulder.

Just last week, a fire in Monte Vista destroyed 15 structures, which included homes and outbuildings. The fire was fanned by winds of up to 40 miles an hour, burning 17 acres on the north side of the city and displacing six families. Reports indicate that 100 homes were initially evacuated. 

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed emergency declarations as 20 wildfires continued to burn Sunday in nearly half of the state’s drought-stricken 33 counties, according to VOA news. More than 200 structures have been charred by the wildfires so far and an additional 900 were reported as threatened.

The McBride Fire started on April 12, in Ruidoso, N.M. and quickly engulfed residential areas. There were tragically two confirmed fatalities and more than 200 homes were lost to the blaze. 

To date, 6,159 acres burned and the fire is now at 95 percent  containment.

These devastating fires remind us of the importance of emergency communications.

Emergency alerts

Archuleta County uses an emergency mass notification system that residents can opt into in order to be notified of situations such as wildfire. 

You can be notified by cellphone and landline including home and work phones, and by text messaging and/or email.

Sign up for alerts at: http://www.archuletacounty.org/569/Citizens-Alert.

It’s time for us all to be alert.

Please remember, it only takes one spark.

Terri Lynn Oldham House