Sheriff: Losing homes is a huge concern; blaze at 6,000 acres

Weber fire now ‘high priority,' Type II federal team to take over

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A slurry bomber tries to save the communication towers on Meneffee Mountain. Most of the local law enforcement, including firefighters, rely on the towers. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

A slurry bomber tries to save the communication towers on Meneffee Mountain. Most of the local law enforcement, including firefighters, rely on the towers.

MANCOS — Montezuma County officials are relying on help from multiple agencies to battle the Weber Fire near Mancos, which has engulfed an estimated 6,000 acres in 24 hours.

U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management response teams, La Plata County Emergency Management, Pine River Emergency Response, Colorado State Patrol and Hot Shot crews from various locations all descended on the Mancos Valley Friday and Saturday to battle the fast-moving blaze.

Fire continued to spread Saturday, with active blazes across Weber Canyon and East Canyon. Mandatory evacuations were issued to 110 homes in the area, with many other residents being told to prepare to leave if the situation worsens.

Firefighting crews, with air support from helicopters, air tankers and slurry bombers, were fighting valiantly to save homes in the Elk Springs Ranch subdivision on the top of Mancos Hill Saturday afternoon as well as structures in Weber Canyon, south of Mancos, where the fire originated.

“We have brought a lot of resources in here,” said Incident Commander Craig Goodell, fire mitigation and education specialist with the Forest Service. “We have half of the large air tanker fleet in the nation working this fire. This is a high priority.”

Saturday, fire crews worked around the perimiter of the fire as the rugged terrain prevented crews from advancing on the blaze.

“It is steep and rugged country and it is too dangerous to send crews in,” Goodell said.

Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell said crews were focused on saving property and increasingly worried about the veracity of the fire that started around 4:30 Friday afternoon.

“Right now, losing homes is a huge concern,” Spruell said, while driving past a roadblock and toward the fire. “This is a Class 2 situation and it is serious.”

Spruell said the county has already made the call to bring in a Type II federal command team, a decision with the price tag of $1 million. Goodell noted the team is equipped to handle fires which last beyond a few days.

“These teams are able to manage larger fires,” Goodell said. “This fire will take several weeks to get under control, and by under control I mean until there is no chance it will continue to spread.”

Montezuma County is requesting aid from the Emergency Fire Fund to cover the expenses related to the fire and provide necessary support to fight the blaze.

The Emergency Fire Fund was established in 1967 to aide counties in managing fires that demand more than the resources available in the county. Once EFF status is approved by the state forester, management of the fire is taken over by the Colorado State Forest Service.

“Hopefully the state will come in and take over some of the fight and the costs with the Forest Service,” Spruell said. “This is beyond what we can handle on our own and we are reaching out for help.”

Management of the fire currently rests Goodell. Spruell said he gave authority to the Forest Service once it became evident the scope of the fire was larger than the capabilities of county response teams.

Along with 130 personnel on the ground, air crews were called in to fight the fire with chemical retardant and water dumps. Six aircraft were circling the Elk Springs subdivision Saturday afternoon, with additional aircraft focused on the Weber Canyon side of the fire.

Sitting in his car beyond the fire lines, Spruell pointed to a home on the hillside

“They are fighting hard to save that home,” he said. “The fire is just right there behind it and they are fighting hard and working as hard as they can.”

As Spruell described the fire, an air tanker hovered over a pond next to the vehicle and filled its tank. The chopper’s blades beat the air in rhythm and stirred the already swirling smoke. Lifting up from the pond, the tanker maneuvered over the forest and sprayed water over structures while smoke billowed nearby.

As of 7 p.m., no structures had been destroyed or damaged in the fire, but Spruell said there are major concerns among officials that not all structures will be saved.

“We are really concerned,” he said. “Everything is up in the air right now.”

Along with the close proximity of the fire to homes and other structures, officials are also concerned with communication capabilities. Communications towers on Menefee Mountain, which is in close proximity to Mancos Hill where the threatened subdivision is located, are threatened by the blaze and officials are preparing contingency plans for loss of communication.

“There are emergency communications up there, there are BLM transmitters and Empire Electric transmitters and all sorts of communications transmitters,” Spruell said. “We are very concerned about those towers.”

Radio calls echoed through emergency vehicles at the top of Mancos Hill, offering backup plans if communications failed.

“That would certainly change and hamper operations,” Spruell said.

Law enforcement officials are also concerned that the fire appears to be moving north, closer to U.S. Highway 160. 

Trooper G.L. Smith with the Colorado State Patrol said it is not outside the realm of possibility that the highway will close if the fire continues to advance.

“If it continues to move, we will close the highway,” Smith said. “Everyone is aware that it might happen and we are being cautious. With the little gusts of wind and the flares we can’t rule out a closure.”

In terms of containment, the fire considered to be out of control with all operations focused on defense of structures.

While the steep and rugged terrain create challenges for the firefighting efforts, weather is the main problem.

Shortly after 8 p.m. the winds shifted again, this time blowing to the west, which brought smoke into the Cortez area.

Erratic winds and warm temperatures were offering no help in battling the blaze on two different fronts — East Canyon and Weber Canyon. Spruell said it is too early to tell how long the fight may continue.

“It could be over tonight or it could take a couple weeks,” he said, eyeing the growing pillars of smoke. “It all depends on what Mother Nature throws at us. Obviously rain would be the best, or for the wind to change and blow it back into itself. But, that’s doesn’t seem to be what is happening.”

Weather forecasts call for high temperatures and winds Sunday and Monday, with red flag warnings in effect for the area. Goodell said the weather, combined with the geography of the canyons and the dry fuels in the region, will most likely lead to an increase in fire size over the next few days.

“It will get bigger in the next several days,” he said. “We will continue to see it grow and we are just going to try and keep it to the east of Weber Canyon, to the south of U.S. Highway 160 and to the west of Cherry Creek Road. If we can do that in the next few days, we will consider it a success.”

Information on the fire is available at 970-564-4999 and at www.inciweb.org.

The fire has been determined to have been human caused but authorities have offered no other details into the investigation at this point.

Reach Kimberly Benedict at kimberlyb@cortezjournal.com.

A helicopter prepares to drop water on the fire in the East Springs subdivision. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

A helicopter prepares to drop water on the fire in the East Springs subdivision.

Slurry is dropped around a house in East Springs. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

Slurry is dropped around a house in East Springs.