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Huerfano faces drought conditions, fights wildfires

by Bill Knowles
WALSENBURG- With most area wildfires contained, fire crews from around the area along with state and federal crews have a chance to take a breather. As many as 400 firefighters from across the nation and Colorado worked the blazes last week.
In Huerfano County around 1,000 acres were scorched or burned at the Busch Ranch after a lightning strike started that fire, according to the county’s emergency manager Diego Bobian. “Crews from Walsenburg, Pueblo, Gardner, and the Juniper Valley firefighters doused the blaze. Huerfano County Road and Bridge also helped,” Bobian said.
During the Busch Ranch fire, the county authorized the use of a helicopter to help fight the blaze but efforts involving the Huerfano County Road and Bridge Department allowed the chopper to be on standby. Road and Bridge brought in a 10,000 gallon water truck which ferried water to the 4,000 gallon trucks used by firefighters.
Blaming windy and dry conditions for setting the stage for the fire, Bobian said meteorologists are predicting windy conditions until further notice. “It’s the wind that’s drying up everything. Normally fire season runs from July through August, but it’s dry enough right now that we are seeing these fires.” It could be a long season for fire crews throughout most of southern Colorado.
The Bear and Purgatoire fires both have been contained in Las Animas county. Officials said some smoke, which at times has obscured vistas of the Spanish Peaks and the front range areas of the Sangre de Cristos, still will be visible at times from the interior of the fire, but the thick haze in the area is from large wildfires burning in Arizona and New Mexico.
The Bear and Purgatoire fires burned around 13,000 acres in Las Animas County near the New Mexico border. The Bear Fire burned about 6,885 acres. The Purgatoire Fire burned about 6,140 acres. Both were declared 100 percent contained about 6 pm last Saturday.
The Bear Fire was ignited by a lightning strike in New Mexico on May 26. The fire, pushed by strong winds quickly spread into Colorado. The Purgatoire Fire began Monday and rapidly spread northeast of the Bear fire. Its cause still is under investigation.
Last Thursday, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an emergency disaster declaration for the fires in Las Animas County. The order authorizes up to $2.5 million in state aid to help pay firefighting costs and directs the state to seek additional funding support from the federal government, if necessary.
Huerfano and Las Animas counties have sent letters to the governor’s office requesting that the area be declared a disaster area due to drought. As conditions continue to worsen, emergency managers are anticipating more wildfires this year.
“We are in a stage 1 fire ban right now,” Bobian said. The ban prohibits building or maintaining a fire or campfire except within a permanent fire grate. Smoking is banned in undeveloped areas except within an enclosed vehicle or building or in a developed recreation site.
The ban also carries with it a strong suggestion that all planned controlled burns shall be reviewed by a qualified representative of the fire protection agency having jurisdiction for the purposes of pre-planning. This will assist the fire department in responding in case the controlled burn escapes.

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