Spring wind season has arrived; fire danger increases

Thursday, April 3, 2014 11:22 PM

High winds hit the area late Sunday afternoon and again on Tuesday, increasing the risk of wildfires and filling the sky with dust haze.

Upper Pine Fire got two calls minutes apart Sunday - one on County Road 523 southeast of Bayfield and one on CR 504 northwest of Bayfield.

Deputy Chief Roy Vreeland said the Sunday winds were the worst he's seen in 20-plus years of living here. Winds hit 50 miles an hour, he said. The Durango Herald cited a National Weather Service report of a 61-mph gust at Durango-La Plata County Airport. Upper Pine was paged at 5:21 p.m. for a fire in a yard near a house at 3490 CR 523. At 5:36 p.m. they were paged to the fire on CR 504.

Vreeland said, "Our folks were headed to 523. Los Pinos was on their way. Then the other page came out. Deputy Chief Aurnhammer (from Los Pinos) told Randy (Larson, Upper Pine Deputy Chief) they could handle it, so we diverted our resources to the other fire."

The residents on CR 504 burned several brush piles Sunday morning and let those die out, Vreeland said. The remains flared up in the late afternoon wind, but the fires didn't spread beyond the piles.

"If they hadn't done such a good job mitigating their property, it might have been worse. They've been working on it for years," Vreeland said.

That Sunday wind also caused power outages at Vallecito from downed trees hitting power lines, and in Durango West II. La Plata Electric reported around 730 customers lost power at Vallecito starting at around 5:15 p.m. Upper Pine Station 2 below the dam also lost power. Power was restored to all but a few customers by 8:30 p.m. Sunday, according to LPEA.

"I'm surprised we didn't see more trees come down," Vreeland said Monday.

Upper Pine did not have a burn ban Sunday. Durango Fire had a ban Sunday and Monday.

Upper Pine and Durango Fire imposed burn bans for Tuesday in anticipation of more high winds. Vreeland said the Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning at 2:55 p.m. Tuesday for that afternoon. "We had a couple bursts, but it wasn't as sustained as on Sunday," he said.

Los Pinos Fire did not have any issues on Sunday or Tuesday, but they did have a fire call Monday evening when the wind was blowing, according to Deputy Chief Tom Aurnhammer. The Monday call came at around 7 p.m. for an out-of-control brush fire on CR 333. "It got away from people who were burning," Aurnhammer said. He didn't know if they had a burn permit. The fire burned about three acres and threatened a house, he said.

Asked if Los Pinos had issued any fire bans because of the winds, he said, "We don't ban unless we are under a Red Flag Warning." Those are issued by the National Weather Service, he said. He didn't think one was issued for Monday.

However, he said Los Pinos discourages burning in high winds, even if there isn't a Red Flag Warning.

Aurnhammer said Los Pinos has not had many calls for out of control burns so far. He did not have a specific number.

As of Monday, Upper Pine had responded to around four controlled burns out of control this year. Vreeland said they also had one on Dec. 31.

Upper Pine Chief Bruce Evans commented, "Ranchers and farmers have been burning their fields and ditches for decades, but the changes in climate and extremes in weather make it a whole new ball game. It's just bizarre. A lot of changes in weather patterns, is it a cycle, or is it long-term?"

Both Upper Pine and Los Pinos have crews to help people with controlled burns so they don't get out of control, Evans said. Call 884-9508 for Upper Pine and 563-9501 for Los Pinos. Aurnhammer said Los Pinos will help if they have a seasonal wildland crew available.