U.S. Highway 160 reopened to traffic around 7:15 p.m. Monday after a 9-mile stretch from Mancos to Cherry Creek (La Plata County Road 105) was temporarily closed because of poor visibility caused by smoke from the East Canyon Fire.
As of 8 p.m. Monday, the East Canyon Fire had scorched an estimated 2,703 acres along the La Plata-Montezuma county line, said Pam Wilson, a spokeswoman with the Bureau of Land Management.
Highway 160 also had been closed pending the ignition of backburns, but those burns will not occur Monday night, said Lisa Schwantes, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Backburns had been planned to keep the fire from crossing Highway 160, which Wilson said was one of the major goals of current firefighting operations Monday.
Overnight, some crews may stay on the fire, tied to engines, and these crews are usually charged with structure protection, said Deena Harms, also a spokeswoman with the BLM.
As of Monday evening, four 20-person crews were working the fire, which was burning in Gambel oak, piñon and juniper.
Harms said several engines and heavy equipment were working the fire, but she did not have exact numbers.
Several air tankers, including a heavy air tanker flown out of the Durango-La Plata County Airport were also working the fire, but Harms did not have the exact numbers and types of air assets involved Monday.
Earlier Monday, Wilson had said three helicopters and five air tankers were part of the effort.
Tuesday morning, a Rocky Mountain Blue Type 2 Team will take over management of the fire with the transition to occur around 10 a.m. A Type 2 team typically takes over management of fires because they have become more complex and are expected to last longer than originally anticipated, Harms said.
As expected, around 11 a.m. Monday, the fire gained momentum as temperatures rose – keeping firefighters in a defensive mode for several hours, according to a news release issued by BLM.
The fire made a push to the north at this time, eventually leading to the closure of Highway 160, the news release said.
The fire is currently about 1 mile from Highway 160.
Spot fires had crossed Cherry Creek Road and been doused, but had not crossed Highway 160, the BLM said.
Harms said it was too early to have a cost estimated for firefighting operations.
Should the highway close again, drivers have few options for detours.
Travelers going from Durango to Cortez are advised to take U.S. Highway 550 to Farmington, U.S. Highway 64 to Shiprock, then U.S. Highway 491 to Cortez – a two hour, 15 minute drive.
During Monday’s temporary closure, Montezuma County Sheriff Steven Nowlin said officials, including CDOT, Colorado State Patrol and the Mancos Marshal’s Office, were allowing some residential local and business commuters to pass through.
The State Patrol had set up a roadblock on Highway 160 just east of Mancos.
As of 8 p.m. Monday, Wilson said the fire was listed at zero percent containment.
The fire started as a result of a lightning strike Saturday, first burning on private land and then moving onto BLM land on a ridgeline between Montezuma County Road 46 and La Plata County Road 105.
Areas north and south of Highway 160 from the top of Mancos Hill to the Target Tree Campground are under evacuation orders. Both sides of the highway from Target Tree Campground to mile marker 66 – about 3 miles east of the Highway 160-County Road 105 intersection – are under pre-evacuation notice.
About 23 homes remain under mandatory evacuation in the Elk Springs and Elk Stream subdivisions, and another 15 homes along Cherry Creek Road have been evacuated.
Wilson said fire crews Monday focused on containing the fire on its western flank to keep it from moving into Weber Canyon. Two homes and a radio tower are at risk in the area.
“Last night, they put a lot of retardant along the western flank to keep it from moving further to the west,” she said. “And what we’re really working on this morning is getting in a hand line so it doesn’t move back into Weber (Canyon).”
A fire in 2012 burned the west side of Weber Canyon, Wilson said, but this fire is threatening its east side, where many fuels exist, raising the potential for a destructive blaze.
The fire is mostly burning in La Plata County and moving northeast, Wilson said, yet high and unpredictable winds expected Monday and Tuesday could change the fire’s direction.
The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for Monday and Tuesday. Temperatures will be in the 80s, wind gusts could reach 15 to 30 mph and there is zero chance for precipitation.
Type 3 team had taken command Monday morning.
The team has been stationed in Hesperus for the past couple of weeks.
“We certainly all expected this to happen,” Wilson said. “It was just a matter of when.”
A critical telecommunication tower was partially damaged by the fire and lost its main power source, Nowlin said.
Back-up generators kicked on and service was resumed.
The tower provides radio communications for emergency providers in the region, including fire departments, EMTs, municipal police, Colorado State Patrol, federal agencies and the county sheriff.
Nowlin said the tower cannot be reached to fix because of the wildfire. A plan is in place to use repeaters on nearby towers so the communication signal will continue once the fuel in the backup generators runs out.
Fire retardant slurry is being dropped around the communications tower to protect it, fire officials said. The fire-damaged tower is southeast of the Menefee Mountain towers, which have not been damaged.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment extended an air quality health advisory until 9 a.m. Tuesday, encouraging people to stay indoors and limit outside activities, especially for vulnerable populations like those with respiratory or heart disease, children and senior citizens.
CDPHE said smoke is expected to move northeast of the fire, creating heavy smoke in western La Plata County, reaching as far as Silverton. By the evening, smoke is expected to settle in the lower valleys around Durango and Mancos.
If visibility is less than 5 miles, the health department says smoke has reached unhealthy levels.
Journal Staff Writer Jim Mimiaga contributed to this report [email protected]