Despite the continued extreme drought conditions in Southwest Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service announced it will reopen the San Juan National Forest Thursday, which was closed last week because of high fire danger.
"It may seem like a quick turnaround since last Tuesday (June 12), but both the decisions to close and reopen the SJNF were based on scientific information and a defined set of 10 criteria," the U.S. Forest Service said in a news release.
On June 12, the Forest Service closed the entire 1.8 million acres of the San Juan National Forest, for the first time ever, because of the unprecedented fire danger - a result of one of the driest years in Southwest Colorado in recorded history.
The decision to close the forest was also driven by two active fires - the 416 and Burro fires - which were raging through parts of the San Juan National Forest, north of Durango and northeast of Dolores, respectively.
In an effort to remove the possibility of another fire outbreak and be able to dedicate all available firefighting resources to those two fires, the Forest Service, along with the city of Durango, La Plata County and the Bureau of Land Management, closed public lands to recreation.
Southwest Colorado received between 0.5 to 1.5 inches of rain over the weekend, which helped slow the 416 and Burro fires, but not extinguish them.
Jeff Colton, an incident meteorologist for the 416 Fire, said the region will return to the same hot and dry weather conditions, and thus the perfect recipe for fire danger. By the weekend, whatever benefits the rain did bring will be gone, he said.
"We knew the impacts would be short-lived," Colton said. "By this weekend, we'll have nearly identical weather conditions prior to the rains."
This prediction of fire danger stands in contradiction to the Forest Service's explanation of why it, in part, lifted Stage 3 restrictions. The Forest Service said fire conditions are "not likely to reach the previously extreme levels."
The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center forecasts normal to below-normal rainfall for Southwest Colorado over the next two weeks during a month that is typically the driest of the year for Southwest Colorado. The National Weather Service predicts above-average temperatures for the next two weeks.
"From where we were with the rainfall, the atmosphere has dried up dramatically," Colton said.
Cam Hooley, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said the weekend rain was only one factor in lifting Stage 3 restrictions.
La Plata County commissioners will discuss Thursday whether to downgrade from Stage 3 to Stage 2 restrictions. The county also enacted Stage 3 restrictions last week, which also banned the use of coal-fired engines.
If Stage 3 restrictions are lifted, that could mean the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad could run for the first time since the train suspended service at the outbreak of the 416 Fire.
The city of Durango will reopen Lake Nighthorse and the Durango Off-Leash Area (dog park) on Friday, but it's unclear if the city intends to open any other open space. Durango City Manager Ron LeBlanc did not immediately return a call Wednesday.
The BLM lands and the rest of the San Juan National Forest will remain in Stage 2 fire restrictions.
Lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the Durango area that closed last week will also reopen. An area around the active 416 and Burro fires will remain closed to public entry, including segments of the Colorado Trail from Molas Pass to the Junction Creek terminus.