Wildfires strike Four Corners region

Fire season is officially upon the Four Corners region. Dozens of small wildfires and several larger ones have been sparked in the last week, and fire restrictions have been put in place at lower elevations of the San Juan National Forest.

“All these fires are burning in areas of extreme hazard,” said Mark Lauer, fire management officer for the San Juan Public Lands. “The fuel moistures in these areas have been plummeting over the past week with the hot, dry temperatures, and many of these areas are covered with highly flammable, dry cheatgrass and dead piñon pine.”

A lightning show last Thursday afternoon triggered more than 15 forest fires in Montezuma County. One of the epicenters was just east of Mesa Verde National Park and south of Mancos, and a small blaze blew up into the Trail East Fire over the weekend. Burning in continuous juniper, the fire was problematic because of rugged terrain and poor access for firefighters. As a result, most of the firefighting was done from the air, and four, 20-person Hotshot crews were brought in.

On Monday afternoon, a new wildfire, the Dwelling Fire, started within the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, southeast of Towaoc. The park’s rich archeological resources made the wildfire particularly threatening. The fire spread rapidly through piñon-juniper forest, grasslands and sagebrush and grew to 300 acres in just four hours. The threat to archeological sites eventually forced the transfer of Hotshot crews, water tenders, engines and all tactical air resources from the Trail East Fire to the Dwelling Fire.  

In spite of this transfer and high winds earlier this week, firefighters were able to gain the upper hand on both fires. As of press time, the 2,381-acre Trail East Fire was approximately 75 percent contained and the Dwelling Fire had been reduced to 300 acres and was 40 percent contained.

The two fires, along with continued high temperatures and absence of moisture gave public lands officials cause to reinstate fire restrictions last weekend. The “Lower Zone I” restrictions apply to the area from the New Mexico border north to Highway 160, between Highway 151 on the east and Cortez on the west.

“The fire danger in the lower zone is increasing every day with this continued hot, dry weather,” said Lauer.

According to the restrictions, campfires must be kept within developed campgrounds; smoking is limited to vehicles, buildings or areas cleared of vegetation; chainsaws and other similar power tools must have spark arresters; acetylene and other torches and explosive are prohibited.

With the hot, dry weather predicted to continue, the Forest Service encourages residents and visitors to use common sense.

Fight against Wolf Creek mobilizes

The fight against the Village at Wolf Creek is picking up steam. Citizens from across Colorado, under the banner of “Friends of Wolf Creek,” gathered last week to craft the next steps in the growing effort to counter the proposed Village at Wolf Creek real estate development.

Texas billionaire, former Minnesota Vikings owner and Clear Channel baron, Red McCombs, has proposed the “Village,” a small city of 8,000 people near Wolf Creek Pass and Wolf Creek Ski Area. More than 3,000 individuals contacted the Rio Grande National Forest last winter to express opposition to the plans.

Now, the opposition, headed by 30 citizen leaders, is re-igniting the campaign. Sam Nickerson, San Luis Valley resident and former chair of the Rio Grande County Republican Party, commented, “We need to put a stop to this boondoggle. It is inconceivable that something like this development can work. Our local, state and national elected officials need to recognize the political pressure driving the Forest Service to shirk its responsibilities for ‘protecting the land and serving the people.’”

Dean Cox, manager of Wolf Creek Ski Area from 1969-75, echoed those concerns, saying, “The proposed development will destroy Wolf Creek Ski Area. People are drawn here precisely because it is undeveloped and retains the true essence of the sport of skiing. If the Village becomes a reality, it will overwhelm the ski area, and we will forever lose the area’s unique appeal.”

In an effort to mobilize the opposition, chapters of Friends of Wolf Creek are being launched everywhere throughout the state, from Durango to Denver. These local chapters are planning to increase awareness of the impacts of the proposed development, as well as the political pressure at play to secure approvals for the development.

The Durango chapter launches with a meeting on Tues., July 26, at 5:30 p.m. at San Juan Citizens Alliance’s office at 850 Main Ave. Interested members of the public are encouraged to attend. For more information, contact Amber at 259-3583.

Water alliance takes on oil & gas

A local environmental group is standing up against the oil and gas industry and going to bat for water quality. San Juan Citizens Alliance, and three other groups from the region, have formed the West Slope Water Network. Together they have filed a motion urging that oil and gas projects should meet the same water quality standards as other construction sites.

In March, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission reinstated storm runoff standards for thousands of oil and gas drilling sites. The standards had been stripped by the Bush administration for no stated reason. In response to the reinstatement, the energy industry has filed suit, claiming that oil and gas development should not be held to the same standards as other construction sites between 1 and 5 acres.

Chuck Wanner, water-affairs coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance, explained that construction sites contribute to water pollution courtesy of sediment load. When it comes to sediment, oil and gas development is a leading polluter, he said.

“In the State of Colorado, sediment is the single largest form of pollution,” Wanner said. “Construction on oil and gas sites disturbs a lot of land because it also includes roads. The soils down here are not that stable. When you get one of these big storm events, a lot of sediment washes down into the drainage.”

Wanner added that the energy industry has never given a scientific rationale for why it should be exempted from the standards.

“When the rule was suspended by the administration and the commission two years ago, there was no scientific basis for the decision,” he said. “There’s never been any demonstration that oil and gas construction sites are any different than any other construction site.”

In closing, Wanner explained that meeting the standards is not difficult and can be accomplished through the placement of straw bales and plastic sheeting. “It’s pretty basic stuff, but crucial in terms of keeping sediment out of steams,” he said.

Iguanas raise big bucks for KSUT

Live music and dancing turned into big dollars two weekends ago at Durango Mountain Resort. The Iguanas, a popular New Orleans dance band, performed in front of a sold-out crowd at the base area. The show grossed $10,160, and $5,235 of that went directly to KSUT public radio to cover future programming costs.

KSUT will use the funds to support local programming, including local news, the Music Blend, Tribal Beat and live event coverage throughout the year.

“The second annual benefit concert was a huge success,” said Beth Warren, KSUT executive director. “And we simply would not have been able to do it without Durango Mountain Resort’s help. They donated the venue, the lodging event staff and more. We appreciate all they have done to support the station.”

– compiled by Will Sands