Arson linked to El Rancho fire

The fire that filled downtown Durango with smoke Saturday afternoon and left 24 people homeless and closed the El Rancho Tavern indefinitely was deliberately set, authorities said Monday. Durango’s largest structure fire in more than 30 years, the Central Hotel Fired ripped through the upper floors of the historic structure at 975 Main Ave., sending two occupants to Mercy Regional Medical Center. Dave Abercrombie, spokesman for the Durango Fire and Rescue Authority, said more than 60 firefighters from multiple agencies responded to the blaze which was believed to have started in a hallway on the third floor. He said firefighters received a dispatch call at 12:58 p.m. and responded to find one resident of the upper floor apartments on an outside ledge of the building. He jumped to the roof of an adjacent building, about a one-story fall, sustaining leg injuries. He was transported to the hospital along with another resident. In all, six people were rescued from  the burning building.

Abercrombie said about 40 minutes after arriving, firefighters went on the “defensive” because of the intense burning conditions of the fire. Police rerouted traffic through downtown and roped off the large crowd of curious onlookers that had gathered.

“We went from fighting it from the inside to fighting it from the outside with hoses,” Abercrombie said. Two hours later, crews were back inside and eventually got a handle on the fire.

Along with cleanup, an investigation of the fire’s cause began Sunday. On Tuesday, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation released its findings. Erin, an 8-year-old labrador, working with her partner, Jerry Means, identified numerous spots on the stairways and in hallways where hydrocarbons were found, indicating the presence of flammable liquids and a deliberately set fire. Samples were sent to the CBI laboratory in Montrose for further confirmation by chemical analysis.  

Based on the findings of the investigation, accidental causes of the fire were ruled out, and investigators concluded that the fire was intentionally set by an unknown person or persons.

In an effort to bring the culprit to justice, investigators ask that anyone who has photographs or videos, prior to or during the fire, make those available to the Durango Police Department.  urthermore, anyone who may have seen anything suspicious or anyone running from the building at the time of the fire is asked to notify the Durango Police Department.

Meanwhile, 13 of the building’s 24 residents are now homeless. Early this week, the Southwest Colorado Chapter of the American Red Cross provided the Durangoans with food, clothing, temporary housing, medication and medical health support. However, the temporary housing ended on Tuesday morning and the Red Cross was looking for more community support. The local chapter of the Red Cross can be reached at 259-5383.


Institute tackles wetlands education

A local group is pushing for wetlands education and preservation. The San Juan Mountains are a hot spot for old-growth wetlands, or fens, and Silverton’s Mountain Studies Institute is doing its best to shed light on the essential pieces of the local landscape.

Fens, which are thousands of years old, are found throughout the San Juan Mountains. The wetlands support biodiversity and unique plant communities while recharging groundwater and providing important wildlife habitat. They are also sensitive to natural and human disturbances, including impacts from mountain development. Even though the San Juans support the highest concentration of fens in the western United States, little is known about these vital ecosystems. The Mountain Studies Institute is hoping to reverse this trend. In 2004, the organization, which was founded to expand knowledge of mountain ecosystems and communities, developed a Mountain Wetland Monitoring, Assessment and Protection Program. The program is intended to further understanding of these ancient wetlands.

In July, the Mountain Studies Institute sponsored two workshops which were attended by 45 field scientists, natural resource managers, wilderness rangers, monitoring staff and planners from the San Juan, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, Gunnison and Rio Grande national forests. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff, ski area environmental technicians, students and local citizens were also on hand. Participants learned about fen ecology and hydrology; fen inventory, assessment and protection; and about MSI’s San Juan Mountain Fen Inventory and Assessment project.

The effort to communicate information to land managers and the public will continue next summer, when participants will learn how to use the San Juan Fen database developed from the inventory project. To learn more, visit


City Span 10 receives top honors

Local public television is not going unnoticed. The City of Durango’s government access channel, City Span 10, recently won a number of coveted national awards and is in the running for more.  

“We receive many positive comments every day from residents about the programming on City Span 10, but it is really nice to be recognized at a national level, while going head to head with other, sometimes much larger, municipalities,” said Greg Caton, station manager and assistant city manager. “With the City Council’s support, the station is now functioning at a professional level that provides a great service to the community.”

The documentary “Fourteen,” showing the pressures a Durango High School girl faces in her freshman year, received numerous honors. The picture won an Aegis Award, a DV Award, a Telly Award, and was submitted for an Emmy Award. “Building for the 7th Generation,” a documentary on ancient building processes being used in modern times, also won a DV award and has been submitted for an Emmy Award. “Working a Double,” which follows two local waitresses, also won a DV award and is in contention for an Emmy. In the most recent round of National Association of Telecommunication Officers and Advisors, City Span 10 won Honorable Mention among thousands of municipal entries.  


DMR announces staff promotions

Big staff changes are taking place at Durango Mountain Resort. This week, the local ski resort announced numerous promotions which took effect Aug. 1.

At the top of the list, Hank Thiess was named president of resort operations for the resort. Thiess joined Durango Mountain Resort a year ago as general manager and will continue to lead resortwide initiatives.

Duke Eggleston is now the senior vice president and general counsel for Durango Mountain Resort, managing the legal and political issues for the resort. He will also serve as senior vice president and general counsel for Kirkwood Mountain Resort in California.

EJ Schanfarber has been named senior vice president of community services. He will oversee all property management, homeowner association services, resident transportation, community relations and the newly formed Durango Mountain Utilities.

John Reiter has been promoted to vice president of real estate development and will manage real estate projects at the resort.

Judy Wachob is now the senior director of village services and will continue to be responsible for all Purgatory Village operations including the ticket office, guest services, and retail and rental outlets.

And wrapping things up, Loryn Kasten will replace Matt Skinner as the marketing and communications manager. Skinner has left to handle marketing and communications at Telluride.

– compiled by Missy Votel and Will Sands


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