We all knew it was possible, but were hoping it wouldn’t happen. The 2017-18 snow pack was dismal and melted off fast. The rivers and creeks peaked early and some are now, as of July 2, flowing at only five to ten percent of average for this time of year. A couple of fronts passed over the Upper Rio Grande in June providing much needed moisture, but it wasn’t enough.
The temperatures climbed while the humidity dropped. The large fuel types dropped below 10 percent moisture content, which meant they would burn well. The moisture in the duff, the upper layer of dead material on the ground, increased some after the storms, but then plunged back down to highly flammable levels. On the positive side, most of the shrubs and trees began to flush up with moisture making them a bit more fire resistant. Although, the Douglas fir trees that were hit by spruce budworm were still dry.
There had been a couple of early fires on the Rio Grande National Forest that had spread some before firefighters could get to them. One, the Park Creek Fire, burned just over 60 acres. These were warning shots; signs that under the right conditions a wildland fire had the potential to go big.
Things quickly dried out after the second moisture laden front moved through. Only a few puffy clouds would float across the sky each day providing no rain and, luckily, no lightning. Humans were the only possible ignition source.
Then it happened. A human caused ignition in the Sangre de Cristo Ranches subdivision. The call came in on the afternoon of June 27. The fire spread quickly through sagebrush in the hot, dry, windy conditions making it impossible to corral. And it was in a terrible location. Several subdivisions were nearby. People had to evacuate right away, without warning, without time to prepare.
Later in the evening, eyewitness reports started circulating about homes burning. It was heartbreaking. It was the kind of thing we expect to see on the news about somewhere else, not the San Luis Valley.
As I write this, the latest report puts the Spring Creek Fire at close to 79,000 acres with over 100 homes burned. The fire has split into two very distinct sections, now called the North Spring Fire and South Spring Creek Fire. Highway 160 has been closed for going on five days now.
By the time this column is published, the fire will have grown, more homes may be reported as destroyed, but hopefully the monsoons will have arrived. And hopefully, everyone will be safe and healthy.
A big thank you to all of the emergency personnel who are or did work on anything tied to the Spring Creek Fire. To the firefighters on the ground; the pilots in the air; law enforcement personnel involved with evacuations and keeping everyone safe; the overhead team strategizing firefighting tactics; and all the support personnel who assist with the firefighting efforts in every way imaginable. The support personnel, in particular, are the unsung heroes. They keep the firefighters in food, water, clothes, tools and other supplies. They make sure the camp has toilets, trash receptacles, chairs and tables, large tents, and even showers. That was the short list.
Kudos also to the communications folks who provide information to the public, fire personnel, and local, state and federal government officials. Locals in particular have a huge thirst for fire information and these people put out factual information to traditional and social media, as well as sending personnel out on the ground to post notices and talk directly to people.
And thank you to the state and county emergency personnel, Red Cross and volunteers who open and manage the evacuation centers.
The Spring Creek Fire is like no other wildland fire we have seen in the upper Rio Grande. The fire will be put out, the land will recover and new homes will be built, but right now, the most important thing is to lend a hand to our friends and neighbors affected by this destructive blaze.
Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.