by Dan Harper and Susan Simons
Last Thursday, many Huerfano County residents noticed an enormous plume of smoke appearing to come from the Sangres. It was from a wildfire in the Medano Pass area inside the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Thursday′s high winds propelled the smoke cloud and debris, making it difficult to locate its source visually. However the fire is 25 miles northeast of Alamosa and 15 miles west of Westcliffe.
This fire started with a lightning strike on June 6 in the Great Sand Dunes National Park. To protect some ritually peeled trees of historical and cultural significance, fires were set in buffer areas to consume the available fuel. By June 16 the fire had crossed into the adjacent national preserve land, but the fire was allowed to run its course. This is standard operating procedure for fires in national park land where the public and structures are not threatened.
The fire took on a different personality June 17 due to high winds. By the end of the day it had grown to over 4000 acres, still not threatening any structures. The park continued to watch this event warily.
When the fire crossed into San Isabel National Forest, the Forest service had already dispatched a Type-2 fire team to the area. By June 22, there were 179 firefighters assigned including 5 hand crews, 7 engines, and 2 helicopters. The fire had consumed 4772 acres and crossed the “mountain divide between Saguache and Huerfano counties.”
Closures for fire safety include Medano Pass Road in the Park; the Muddy, Mosca and Medano Roads; and the Rainbow Trail south of Music Pass. Great Sand Dunes National Park is open for visitors.
The fire is being managed with a “confine” strategy by the Interagency Type II Rocky Mountain Incident Mangement Team in cooperation with Custer and Huerfano counties, local communities, the Wet Mountain Fire Protection District, Colorado and US Forest Services, and the National Park Service. Plans and preparations are underway to protect homes and other buildings if that becomes necessary.
Public meetings were held in the Gardner Community Center at 7 pm Tuesday June 22 and in Westcliffe at 25 Main St. Wednesday June 23. Updates are regularly posted at www.incieweb.org.