June 19th will mark the 15th anniversary of the start of the Million Fire near South Fork. While there have been four larger wildland fires in the upper Rio Grande watershed since then, the Million Fire is still the most destructive in our area in more than 100 years.
The winter of 2001-2002 was the driest in modern history in our mountains. According to snotel site data, the snowpack in upper Rio Grande watershed was 10 percent of average at the end of April and zero percent of average on May 31 – there was no snow being recorded at any of the sites.
Forest Service employees working in the field described walking in the forest as “spooky.” They said the forest smelled like firewood. And this was before the spruce beetle epidemic. To make matters worse, an apparent arsonist had been working the South Fork and Del Norte areas. Several human-caused fires had resulted in small fires that were luckily quickly contained.
Everyone was on edge.
And then it happened. The call came in around 1 p.m. that there was a fire near Million Reservoir. It just so happened, several Rio Grande National Forest employees were nearby at the South Fork Guard Station taking law enforcement training. They were on the scene quickly and started digging fire line right away to try to contain fire. Unfortunately, strong winds soon pushed the fire up a steep slope before it could be encircled with a fire line. Within minutes the flames climbed up into the tops of the trees and it took off. There was no catching it.
A smoke column formed climbing thousands of feet above the fire. As the fire grew and the heat intensified, the column thickened to the width of several football fields and bubbled up looking like a thunderhead. Hundred foot flames consumed Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, white fir and limber pine trees. Worse yet, the winds were blowing the fire right towards Willow Park Estates.
Reinforcements were called in right away and fire departments responded from around the San Luis Valley. Slurry tankers and helicopters also arrived within just a couple of hours to join in the suppression efforts, but there was no slowing down the head of the fire. The fuels were too dry, the humidity too low and the winds too strong. The firefighters focused their efforts on the back and sides of the fire, and on protecting structures.
Meanwhile, Colorado State Patrol, Rio Grande Sheriff’s Department, and county emergency workers mobilized to manage traffic and evacuate citizens from the South Fork area. One evacuation center was set up at the Del Norte Middle School for residents and another at Ski Hi for the RVs and livestock. An incident command post was first set up at the South Fork Guard Station and then later moved to the South Fork Community Center.
By about 4 in the afternoon, the Million Fire reached the ridge above Willow Park Estates. Volunteer fire departments had already arrived and were busy cleaning up around homes to try to protect them from the fast approaching flames. But the fire was big and so intense that ash was dropping into people’s yards in Center. The firefighters worked through the night trying to save what they could.
The next day, when smoke cleared enough to assess the damage, 11 homes were destroyed and six others damaged.
The Million Fire continued for several more days burning more than 9,000 acres of federal and private land. Resources from all over the country and a Type 1 incident management team were called in to take over the firefighting efforts.
The Million Fire caused disruption and heartache throughout the South Fork area. Losing a home to wildland fire is a terrible thing. But the Million Fire also brought out the best in our San Luis Valley community. People dropped everything to support the firefighting efforts. There was no thought of self, just compassion for others. It’s why I live here.
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.