Firefighters battle wildfire on into the night

April 30, 2002

Copyright © Photographs are the copyrighted Property of The Durango Herald used with permission.

By Brian Newsome
Herald Staff Writer

A wildfire grazed homes and torched more than 180 acres in western La Plata County on Monday, and firefighters were still struggling to contain it as of press time.

The fire, less than two miles southwest of Breen and north of Kline, broke out around 3 p.m. and was still not contained at 10:45 p.m., said Joanne Spina, assistant to the county manager, speaking on behalf of fire officials.

"When these fires start, and they are driven by wind and any kind of vegetation, we’re going to see very fast movement," said Butch Knowlton, director of the County Department of Emergency Preparedness.

The sun shines through the smoke from the Breen fire, turning the sky orange Monday afternoon. The fire, which is still under investigation, burned between 180 and 200 acres.

Windows were broken in one home and the siding caught fire, but overall damage was minimal, Knowlton said. He said an 80-foot wall of flames passed within feet of the home, as two firefighters from the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District scrambled to escape its path, dragging fire hoses behind the firetruck as they drove away. An air tanker dropped slurry – a fire retardant – on the home and the firefighters, Knowlton said. The firefighters returned to the home after the wall of flames had passed and were able to save it, he said. Another home nearby also narrowly missed being destroyed.

Eight homes in the area were evacuated; residents were escorted back to their homes later Monday night but were warned they might be evacuated again depending on the fire’s status, Spina said. It was unclear if other structures, such as outhouses and barns, had been burned, Spina said.

Area residents and animal control officers were able to relocate livestock, Spina said. There were no reported injuries or deaths – human or animal – from the fire.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation late Monday. Most of the fire burned across private land, Spina said, but it did spread into the Southern Ute Indian Reservation.

An all-out response

Monday’s Breen fire burned right up to this and another home nearby, but firefighters saved the homes by dousing them with water and foam. At one point the firefighters had to run from the flames and heat, which got too intense, and when they returned, the homes were still standing.

About 150 people responded to the blaze, including all La Plata County fire agencies, state and federal forest services, firefighters from northern New Mexico, tribal officials, law enforcement, the Office of Emergency Management and the Colorado Mounted Rangers, Knowlton said. Four air tankers, two from Denver and two from Albuquerque, were summoned to drop slurry. A local helicopter was also called in to drop water.

The American Red Cross and area residents with the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District provided food for firefighters and assistance to residents, Spina said.

The slurry bombers painted a line around the fire with retardant at about 8:30 p.m., which enabled crews to get closer to the flames and begin building a fire line – a dirt barrier around the fire used to contain it. Firefighters and bulldozers were working on the line as of press time.

Though the fire was not on federal land, the U.S. Forest Service took command at about 7 p.m. because of its experience in managing larger fires, Spina said.

County roads 122, 122A and 119 were all closed, and a telephone hot line was set up to update residents on the fire’s status. The hot line was shut down at about 8:30 p.m. Spina said officials would reconvene today and decide whether to re-open the line.

Dick Mullen, spokesman for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, said at 5:20 p.m. that the area was in a red-flag condition, with humidity below 10 percent and winds in the 20 to 30 mph range. However, winds had calmed by nightfall, Knowlton said.

"That gave the firefighters an opportunity to move into those hazardous areas and start building the fire lines," he said.

Work continued into night

Firefighters were scheduled to work on the blaze, which was estimated between 180 to 200 acres as of 10 p.m., throughout the night. Roads were to remain closed until morning, when the scene would be re-evaluated, Spina said.

The fire, on both sides of the La Plata River, started near the river and spread upward onto the flatter areas of the mesa, where it engulfed piñon and cedar trees and sagebrush, Spina said.

Though threat to structures had appeared to subside, Knowlton said the fire should be a wake-up call to residents.

"This is the time that people have to sit back and evaluate the defensible space around their homes. Today was a prime example of what happens when you end up with heavily vegetated areas right up next to residences," he said.

U.S. Forest Service officials are predicting the fire danger in Colorado will reach a historical high this summer as the snowpack is about 30 percent of average statewide.

In the San Juan/Dolores river basins, which includes La Plata County, the snowpack was 20 percent of average April 8, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Some of the streams have already peaked, the board said.

Fire season is about seven weeks ahead of schedule because of the drought, according to the governor’s office.

Gov. Bill Owens declared a state-of-disaster emergency April 23 because of wildfire threats. The governor’s executive order released $450,000 for wildfire suppression and mitigation activities.

As of April 23, 283 wildfires in the state had burned 7,664 acres.

Herald Staff Writer Tom Sluis contributed to this report.

Reach staff writer Brian Newsome at

Breen fire contained ..... May 1, 2002

By Shane Benjamin
Herald Staff Writer

BREEN – Firefighters all but wrapped up the Breen fire Tuesday afternoon, containing 100 percent of the blaze by nightfall and putting to bed the cloud of smoke that filled the sky earlier in the day.

But another, smaller fire was sparked Tuesday afternoon about five miles north of the Breen fire, sending firefighters scurrying from one location to the next to keep the flare-up from growing, said Joanne Spina, assistant to the county manager, speaking on behalf of fire officials.

"We were very fortunate to have resources in the area to divert to this new fire so close by," Spina said. "It looked like they were getting a very good handle on it quickly."

The new fire, which was started by lightning and covered about 1½ acres, was 100 percent contained as of 8 p.m. – meaning firefighters had a fire line around the burning area, Spina said. An acre is about the size of a football field.

The Breen fire claimed 180 to 200 acres of private and Southern Ute Indian lands. An unoccupied cabin was destroyed, one home was partially burned and another received smoke damage, Spina said.

Lisa Holenbeck, who rents a home that almost burned in the Breen fire Monday, surveys the damage in her back yard Tuesday from her deck. The deck, which was hit by slurry, used to be blue. Holenbeck said she was at home in a photo darkroom at the time the fire broke out and was alerted to it by her dog, who started barking.

The fire started at about 3:30 p.m. Monday near the La Plata River less than two miles southwest of Breen and north of Kline.

The U.S. Forest Service, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and La Plata County Sheriff’s Office were investigating the cause of the blaze Tuesday. Area residents, however, were speculating that the fire was started by two men burning something near the river or was the result of a lightning strike last week that had been smoldering.

Residents who were asked to evacuate their homes Monday were relieved Tuesday to find their structures still standing.

Lisa Holenbeck, who rents a two-story wooden house, credited firefighters and an airtanker for saving the house, which was in the burn path just west of Kline and Breen.

"They did a fantastic job, just terrific," Holenbeck said.

The house was partially burned on one side and several windows were broken, but it was in relatively good condition compared to the scorched surroundings of piñon and cedar trees. The house was also covered in red fire retardant, which helped save it, said Butch Knowlton, director of the La Plata County Department of Emergency Preparedness.

"It’s pretty amazing that the home is still standing," Knowlton said Tuesday while standing outside it. "If it weren’t for the slurry drops, it would be gone."

Holenbeck said she was on the roof of her house at about 3:30 p.m. taking pictures of the approaching fire when someone in a helicopter signaled for her to leave the area. The most difficult part about leaving was deciding what to carry out with her, she said. She took her dog and cameras.

"You just don’t know what to grab," Holenbeck said.

She waited until 9 p.m. before learning that the house was saved. "It was scary because nobody could confirm whether the house was standing or not," she said.

Beth Leidy, a neighbor of Holenbeck’s, had to wait three hours before learning her house was OK. Her main concern during the ordeal was wondering if one of her three dogs was safe. The other two were rescued Monday by a Colorado State Patrol trooper.

Leidy said the missing dog, Marvin, ran through the front door of the house at about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District volunteer Russell Amidon said he defended his own home Monday. He owns 41 acres along the La Plata River.

"The only thing that saved my house was this river and wind direction," Amidon said Tuesday.

The fire burned hot and fast and made a loud roar as it swept past his property, he said.

"It was rockin’," Amidon said. "It exploded. It got up and exploded."

Less than half a mile from Amidon’s house, a log cabin burned to the ground. It was a summer home owned by a Farmington man, Amidon said. He said "more than likely" personal belongings were lost.

Bill Stephenson, chief of the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District, took little credit for the eight or more homes firefighters saved, saying it was a countywide effort.

"We had immediate response from Durango when we called for equipment," Stephenson said. Fire engines and air support rolled in "like clockwork," he said.

Private citizens with water tankers and tractors also leaped into action, helping create fire lines and douse flames, he said.

Seventeen fire engines, two bulldozers and four water trucks responded to the fire Monday. Officials expected to release seven of the engines, one bulldozer and two water trucks Tuesday evening, Spina said.

Some fire crews were expected to stay overnight to "mop up" and make sure lingering flames did not jump the fire line, she said.

Mop-up is the dirtiest part of firefighting, when firefighters are required to walk the burned area looking for hot spots, said Kent Grant, who was acting as a spokesman for the State Forest Service.

"The adrenaline isn’t pumping anymore when you get to mop-up, so it is a lot more tedious," Grant said.

Reach Staff Writer Shane Benjamin at


Breen fire controlled, burned 148 acres

May 2, 2002

By Shane Benjamin
Herald Staff Writer

The Breen fire was controlled by Wednesday evening, giving firefighters a chance to relax or go home after the three-day ordeal.

A global positioning satellite system revealed that the fire scorched 148 acres – 92 acres of private land and 56 acres of the Southern Ute Indian reservation, said Joanne Spina, assistant to the county manager, speaking on behalf of firefighters.

On Wednesday, 95 firefighters looked for hot spots and sprayed them with water, Spina said. That number was expected to drop to 50 today.

"The staff will continue to work another day or two on rehabilitation and redemption where the dozer-control lines were installed," she said. "That will include things like putting in water bars to prevent erosion and pulling back materials and those kinds of things."

The fire started at about 3:30 p.m. Monday in western La Plata County, north of Kline and south of Breen. The cause of the fire was being investigated.

An unoccupied log cabin was destroyed, one house was partially burned and another had smoke damage.

Reach Staff Writer Shane Benjamin at shane@durangoherald .com.