COSTILLA COUNTY — Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper was flown over Colorado fires before landing in the San Luis Valley and sharing his observations Friday with volunteers, property owners, firefighters and others gathered at the Blanca/Fort Garland Community Center.
With the Spring Fire now listed as the largest active fire in the state, Hickenlooper said he was amazed at the coordination between local residents, state crews, federal agencies and others who developed ways of dealing not only with the magnitude of the damage but also the human needs involved.
The fire was listed at 105,704 acres when the governor visited (increased to 105,733 acres by Friday night) and he noted that it was 35 percent contained and brought with it a flash flood watch. (The last update on Friday night listed the fire as 40 percent contained.)
Hickenlooper said the fire behaved in ways he had never seen before, going south and north at the same time.
Twin pillars of smoke had been noticed for several days prior to the governor’s visit.
While he has signed a bill to get the “supertanker” plane involved in the fight, he said the overall firefighting efforts had been outstanding up until then, but he felt more water would definitely end the fire for good.
“The fire blew up so rapidly,” the governor said. “This very rarely happens, but all resources were there immediately.”
Those resources included firefighters from the “whole intermountain west,” Hickenlooper observed, noting that this involved immense support on the ground.
He commended the Blanca-Fort Garland Fire Department, which stepped up immediately. “This department is largely volunteers,” he commented.
“This is the worst fire in the history of the state, with no loss of life,” he said. “This is the 24th anniversary of the Storm King Fire, which killed 14 firefighters and we learned from that.”
In this case, he commented, “firefighters and support services have been remarkable.”
Hickenlooper said he spent the entire day Friday “seeing story after story of people going above and beyond the call of duty.”
Property loss and devastation are evident and the governor said human resiliency would meet the challenges of repairing, replacing and returning to the homes that are gone.
Moisture helped reduce the fire Thursday as the fire calmed to smoldering and creeping activity. The Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team reported fire behavior should remain low in areas that have received rain; dryer areas should also have limited spread and limited lengths.
As the governor was speaking a slight drizzle began but did not yield significant rainfall. Volunteers reported a 60-percent chance of rain was predicted.
Firefighters advised Hickenlooper that the fire itself is less of a safety concern for them than adverse weather conditions, high exposed ridges and rugged, inaccessible terrain they now face as they work toward complete containment.
Use of the supertanker should be of great help in that, the governor said.
So far, 132 homes have been lost, and the governor acknowledged this but explained that contractual requirements kept the huge tanker aircraft grounded until the bill was signed.
Hickenlooper said water quality will be an issue when the fire is out.
Four hotshot crews are scouting locations for fire line construction in divisions Z and N, which still show movement of the flames.
As the presentation wound down, costs came up. So far, costs have neared $28 million and would go higher before the incident is over, State Sen. Larry Crowder told Hickenlooper, asking if more funds can be made available.
They can, he was advised, but some might have to be paid back to federal agencies.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said recovery work is already beginning and “support doesn’t end when the smoke goes away.”
Scott Tipton (R-HD3) added comments about the incredible first responders and how they stepped up to help. That was echoed by Crowder who said a lot of work is needed but it can be done.
State Rep. Donald Valdez shook the hands of Blanca-Fort Garland firefighters and offered all the help he could give.
All of them declared that the San Luis Valley’s many wonders are untouched and visitors will be welcomed.
U.S. Highway 160 over La Veta Pass will open at 2 p.m. today (Saturday) but motorists are warned that firefighting equipment and adverse conditions will still be present and it could possibly close again.
In addition, Forbes Park property owners will be allowed in Saturday morning for a four-hour period to begin their own property assessment and clean up. Only residents with rapid tags will be admitted, and law enforcement will monitor the entrance point.
Caption: As Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, second from left, speaks at the site of the Spring Fire evacuation center on Friday, he is joined by from left, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, State Sen. Larry Crowder and State Rep. Donald Valdez./Courier photo by Sylvia Lobato