Big local wildfire season forecasted

Smoky skies look to be in Durango’s future. Local fire managers recently peered into their crystal balls and are predicting an above-average wildfire season in Southwest Colorado this year.

Their forecast predicts the continuation of the current La Niña pattern and several more months of above-average temperatures and sub-par precipitation. Mark Lauer, fire management officer for San Juan Public Lands, said that this year’s wet March rescued the area from a catastrophically low snowpack. However, April has not been kind to the San Juans.

“The moisture in March helped after the dry winter, but recent storm fronts have brought a lot of drying wind, which is melting the snow faster than normal,” Lauer said. “Our biggest concern in terms of fire danger is for areas below 8,000 feet in elevation that didn’t receive as much precipitation as the higher elevations.”

Whether the area receives additional precipitation in April and May will determine how early the fire season in Southwest Colorado starts. There are usually some fires on both public and private lands in April or May, but the main fire season on public lands historically begins in June. Over the past five years, firefighters have responded to an average of 344 fires a year on federal lands, and an average of 22,615 acres burn each year.

Lauer also explained that the abundant rain and snowfall received in 2005 carried both positive and negative impacts. On the one hand, aquifers and reservoirs were replenished, plants that have not been seen in years came back to life and ponderosa and piñon trees gained enough nourishment to fight off ravages of beetles. On the downside, the high moisture also led to an abundance of grass growth. That grass now lies dead on the ground, waiting to burn.

“There wasn’t enough snowpack in the lower elevations to compact last year’s grass growth, so if a fire starts, there will be plenty of oxygen below it to carry the fire quickly through the dead grass,” said Randy Lewis, San Juan Public Lands Fuels Specialist.  

In spite of the disquieting forecast, San Juan Public Lands offices will have more firefighting resources this year than in 2005, due to a slight increase in the fire preparedness budgets. The Dolores office will staff three engines; Columbine will staff one engine and one five-person initial attack crew; and the Pagosa office will staff two engines. Plus, the Durango Airtanker Base, located at the La Plata County Airport, will be operational by May 15. In addition to interagency helicopters located at Towaoc and the Hesperus Helibase, there will be one call-when-needed helicopter available in Durango.

Nonetheless, home and property owners, especially at lower elevations, are encouraged to cut back grasses on their property. They should also thin trees and shrubs within 30 feet of the home; stack firewood away from the home or deck; and remove pine needles, cones and dead branches from roofs and gutters.

More information on defensible space and slash burning is available online at:


Danielson nearly repeats in Georgia

Durango’s Tom Danielson came within four seconds of a repeat victory at the Tour de Georgia last week. The former Fort Lewis College cyclist held tough throughout the six-day race and turned in a victory on its toughest stage – Brasstown Bald – but it wasn’t quite enough to get past fellow American Floyd Landis. With the win on Sunday, Landis added to an impressive string of 2006 victories including Paris-Nice and the Tour of California. Ironically, Landis was runner-up to Danielson at the Tour de Georgia last year.

Landis began to control the race during its third stage, the 40-kilometer individual time trial. However, during the race’s fifth and most demanding stage, Danielson came close to capturing the overall lead. The 152-kilometer stage stretches from Blairsville to the summit of Brasstown Bald Mountain. The two riders battled up the demanding climb, and Danielson edged out Landis for the stage win. However, the two finished with the same time, and Landis kept his four-second lead going into Sunday’s 190-kilometer finishing stage. In spite of a flat tire, Landis rolled into Alpharetta and a Tour de Georgia victory with the four seconds intact.

Following his second place, PezCyclingNews had glowing words for Danielson. “Danielson didn’t disappoint,” the online cycling magazine wrote. “Showing Dave Zabriskie his dossard in the (time trial) and making Landis lose his hair on Brasstown Bald, Danielson showed he’s got it all. And he rode with the maturity of a veteran.”

Danielson’s next opportunity to show his stuff will be in a grand tour. For the second year, the Team Discovery rider will line up at the Giro d’ Italia, which runs from May 19-28.


Park renovation in the works  

A facelift is in store for downtown Durango’s greenest space. Buckley Park, located at 12th Street and Main Avenue, will be renovated this summer as part of a parks and recreation improvement program jointly funded by Durango School District 9-R, La Plata County and the City of Durango. A conceptual design for the renovation will be presented at a public meeting May 2 at 5:30 p.m. in the 9-R Central Administration Building.  

Originally purchased as part of the 1916 Durango High School campus, Buckley Park was first used as an activity field. In 1985, the park was renamed in honor of Wendell and Warren Buckley, twin brothers with more than 55 years of combined service as teachers and principals in the Durango school system. Since then, Buckley Park has become a center for civic activities, and time has taken its toll on the old activities field. The irrigation system leaks, and thousands of footsteps have pounded the turf into near powder is some places.

The conceptual plan, developed by local landscape designers Brian Kimmel and Ann and Walker Christensen, preserves as much of the grassy lawn as possible while upgrading facilities to make the park more “user friendly.”  The plan includes: a new irrigation system, a reinforced turf system, seating walls around the park’s edge, nighttime lighting, a children’s play area, a concrete pad for portable toilets, and two formal entryways.

Renovations are expected to cost more than $300,000, according to 9-R Director of Business Services Diane Doney. La Plata County, the City of Durango and the district will provide $100,000 each.  

“This is a win-win program for all three organizations,” said Doney. “It allows us to pool our resources in a shared effort to provide city, county and district residents better parks and recreational facilities than any one of us could do by ourselves.”

For more information or to see a copy of a conceptual drawing, visit:

Center awarded conservation grant

Historical artwork in the Four Corners area got a big boost this week. The Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College will receive federal funds to help preserve the region’s artwork. The Center is one of 40 museums nationwide to receive a 2006 Conservation Support Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences.

The Center’s $36,000 grant will be used to conduct detailed condition surveys of the museum’s paintings, prints and drawings, and photograph collections. The collection includes historical and contemporary works with a strong emphasis on Native American artists. The prints and drawings collection is also focused on Southwestern themes, including a number of women artists, such as watercolorist Laurel Vogel and printmaker Virginia A. Stroud. The photography collection includes the works of William Henry Jackson, Ansel Hall, Pennington Studios, Dr. B.J. Ochsner and Milton Snow.

– compiled by Will Sands