National News

Wildfires Unfurl in Colorado, Spurring Evacuations and Closing a National Forest

Posted June 12, 2018 8:21 p.m. EDT

Wildfires have burned across tens of thousands of acres of parched terrain in Colorado, spurring thousands of evacuations and compelling officials to seal off a national forest from the public Tuesday.

A total of six wildfires were still active in the state, which has endured months of dry weather and little snowfall. The largest, in southwest Colorado, was known as the 416 fire because it was the 416th incident to be called in to emergency officials this year. As of Tuesday morning, it had consumed more than 23,000 acres on the edge of San Juan National Forest and was only about 15 percent contained, according to an interagency team. The authorities said they will keep the national forest closed until it receives “sufficient moisture to improve conditions.”

Detected at the beginning of the month, the fire has prompted evacuations of more than 2,160 residences so far and put residents of another 500 homes on notice for possible evacuation, according to authorities. No deaths or injuries have been reported, officials said; residents have sought shelter in middle schools, and local officials fear tourists usually drawn to the region for the summer may not come.

Much of the region has been affected by abnormal dryness or drought this year. The National Weather Service said in a statement last month that it expects drought will persist in the Colorado region through August.

The causes of the 416 fire and another fire just to the west, the Burro fire, are still being investigated, but “exceptional” drought conditions for about a month and a half have set the stage for them to burn, said Megan Graham, a spokeswoman for La Plata County, where many of the evacuations have taken place.

“We saw this coming,” Graham said. But “obviously there have been more severe wildfires,” she said.

Isolated thunderstorms were predicted to hit the areas affected by the 416 fire and the Burro fire in the next few days, said Kelsey Griffee, a spokeswoman for the interagency team overseeing firefighting efforts. She cautioned the storms could bring wind but not necessarily rain.

Drought has plagued other parts of the West where there have been other recent, larger wildfires. Last year, California was forced to grapple with dozens of fires over tens of thousands of acres, some burning for months. Wildfires have also forced recent full or partial closure of national forests in New Mexico and Arizona, according to USA Today.

In Colorado, 900 firefighters were battling the 416 fire, with a smaller number working to keep it away from the more built-up sections east of Highway 550, Graham said.

“I think the best way to contextualize it is to think about the conditions,” she said. “It is not a surprise to our community that we are dealing with significant wildfire.”

The southwestern Colorado region’s steep, rugged terrain is populated with oak, conifer and aspen, underlaid by grass and brush, Griffee said; those conditions allow flames to climb up the slopes.

Griffee also said that when wildfires sweep through forested areas and other uninhabited lands where more building has occurred, “that is part of the reason why we have so many structures evacuated.”