Fire season lands in Four Corners

The smell of smoke and sound of a helicopter last Saturday sent the strong message to Durango – fire season has returned. Fire crews quickly extinguished a 3-acre blaze just west of town in the Durango Mountain Park. A couple days later, their attentions turned to dozens of lightning-triggered fires in the region.

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the May 20 Test Track Fire. They have discovered that the blaze was human-caused but have not found the culprit. The fire started after 1 p.m. just west of Montview Parkway in the Crestview neighborhood in the vicinity of the mountain park’s Star Wars Trail. Nearly a dozen homes were evacuated as fire fighters and a National Park Service helicopter quickly worked to tackle the wildfire. By 4:30 p.m., crews had the fire contained and residents were welcomed back into their homes.

Dave Imming, spokesman for the Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, said that the Test Track Fire was unusual not because of its timing but because of its proximity to Durango.

“We’ve seen other fires this year, but we don’t usually see them inside the city limits like this,” he said. “I’d say that in spite of this fire, we’re not doing too bad for the season.”

Even though the fire season is still relatively stable in Southwest Colorado, Imming warned that the weather pattern needs to change. “We need to start getting some weather, or we’re going to have some problems,” he said. “The relative humidity and moisture levels for the region are very low. Monday’s rain was great, but we also had a lot of lightning with it. We were very busy that night putting out small fires triggered by lightning.”

Along with some much-needed moisture, Monday’s storm brought 3,500 lightning strikes to the Four Corners region, according to Laurie Robinson, fire information officer for San Juan Public Lands. As a result, there were 11 separate, small fires in the region that day, and three more were discovered Tuesday and quickly mopped up.

“There have actually been a total of 50 fires since Jan. 1 this year,” Robinson said. “The largest was 10 acres and that was on Southern Ute land on May 16. Most of the other fires were an acre or less in size.”

With this in mind, Robinson said that fire season is officially under way in the Four Corners area. “I think you can say that fire season has begun,” she said. “In the last few weeks we’ve seen increased activity. We haven’t had any really big fires yet, but we’re seeing more and more of them.”

A heavy air tanker arrived at the La Plata County Airport this week along with a Type 2 Helicopter. In addition, a single tanker reload base has been added in the vicinity of Cortez. These resources and others will be on the lookout in coming weeks and months.

“It’s always hard to say what’s going to happen until the year evolves,” Robinson said. “Even though it’s not in the forecast, we could get more rain. I think we’ll certainly have an above-normal fire season, but I don’t want to guesstimate that it’ll be as bad as 2002.”


Air pollution grows at Mesa Verde

First Lady Laura Bush was exposed to a substance known to cause asthma attacks, lung inflammation and other respiratory illness early this week. During her Tuesday television appearance at Mesa Verde National Park, the First Lady got a taste of something Four Corners residents live with every day – increasing air pollution. In a recent study, Mesa Verde National Park was spotlighted for its diminishing air quality.

A recent National Park Service assessment documents deteriorating air-quality levels across a broad region of parks in the intermountain West and includes an in-depth look at trends at Mesa Verde. It notes that coal-fired power plants in New Mexico and Arizona are the largest nearby point sources of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Pollutants also travel to the park from industrial and urban areas of southern California and southern Arizona.

Currently, the Park Service is most concerned about visibility in the park, which is often obscured by haze. Data also indicates that levels of nitrogen, sulfur and mercury are all artificially high in the park, and that the situation is continuing to degrade.

Vickie Patton, senior attorney with the group Environmental Defense, said the report should serve as a wake-up call for areas near national parks throughout the country.

“The federal government’s own monitors show that America’s crown jewels are at risk from worsening air pollution,” she said. “We need thoughtful clean-air action to protect this precious legacy for our children and grandchildren.”

According to the National Park Service, ozone pollution levels also worsened significantly between 1995 and 2004 at Mesa Verde. Rising ozone levels pose a serious human health risk and can damage native vegetation and crops. Canyonlands, Craters of the Moon, Death Valley, Glacier, Grand Canyon, North Cascades, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia, and Yellowstone national parks all reported worsening ozone levels.


Hospital approaches opening day

A date has been set for the opening of Durango’s new hospital. This week, Mercy Medical Center announced that the new 82-bed, $76-million facility now under construction in Grandview will be dedicated June 17 and open for business 10 days later.

On June 27, the new hospital’s emergency department will officially open at 6 a.m. when the process of moving hospitalized patients from the old hospital to the new facility begins. Upon the departure of the last patient, the old hospital will officially close, ending 124 consecutive years of patient care at that site. The patient move is expected to be complete by noon that day.

“We’re excited to continue Mercy’s legacy of care in a new building where we can provide a better healing environment and will have room to grow,” said Kirk Dignum, Mercy’s chief executive officer.

The new Mercy Regional Medical Center was designed as a “healing environment” and features private patient rooms, a healing garden with a waterfall, a labyrinth, a history wall, and advanced medical technology including electronic medical records, digital diagnostic imaging, and more.

The June 17 dedication will be open to the public and include an open house, brief speeches, a flag-raising ceremony, live music and more


Burglar goes for the grand prize

A Four Corners man apparently wants to hit the jackpot at any cost. Seven hundred lottery tickets were stolen from an area business May 14, and local police officers are on the high-stakes gambler’s trail.

Early on the morning of May 15, a Durango Police Department officer discovered a broken window at the Exxon Tempo Mini-Mart store, west of Durango on U.S. Highway 160. Further investigation revealed that the business had burglarized that morning, and one of the front windows had been smashed.

After a search of the store, the officer noticed a display case containing several partial books of Colorado Lottery scratch tickets was missing. The store’s surveillance video showed a white male with light to medium build making off with the loot. The stolen tickets included: 7-11-21, Dinero Calienta, Fast Cash, Mucho Dinero, Super Crossword, and Wild 7s. While the stolen tickets have been reported to the Criminal Investigation Division of the Colorado Lottery, several winning numbers have already been redeemed.

Any business suspecting they recently received a stolen ticket is asked to contact 375-4730.

– compiled by Will Sands