by Keno

On Sunday morning June 6 at around 11:30am, lighting from a dry thunderstorm started a forest fire by the eastern end of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Called the Medano Fire, this fire could burn until the first snows fly next fall.

When the fire started, it was first allowed to burn unchecked because of the steep ridges where it was located, “We didn’t want to put any firefighters in any danger there, and since no buildings were in danger from burning, it was decided to let it burn, and we were mainly just monitoring it and cleaning up brush from under trees” said Art Hutchinson, superintendent of the Great Sand Dunes Park.

By Thursday, June 17, the fire had its most active day, growing to cover 4 miles in just a few hours, but after that it slowed down considerably, consuming  on average 50 acres a day in the week that followed.

By Friday, June 18, the fire, which was heading east, had spread into the San Isabel National Forest and firefighters became more active on that side of the blaze. As of

this writing on June 24, 10 crews, 7 engines and 2 helicopters were working on the fire, yet of the 286 firefighters involved, only 20 were working on the Sand Dunes portion of it. The hottest spot in the fire was reported near Zwischen Peak.

As of June 24, 5335 acres were burning approximately 19 miles SE of Crestone. At that size it is considered a “small fire” according to firefighters, and it was being well maintained. Some trails and roads near the fire were closed. Other than that, no homes or other buildings have been burned or even threatened, as the area affected is very isolated. Most areas of the San Dunes Park and Preserve remain open.

Any chance this fire could head north into Crestone? “Never say never” said Baca fire Chief Kimberly Bryant, “But that is very unlikely”, with Hutchinson agreeing. It would take a supersized thunderstorm with very strong down drafting southeast winds to bring it even close to Crestone.

Crestone and the Baca had seen little or no smoke from this fire until June 23, yet people as far away as the Pikes Peak region reported seeing smoke from the fire a week before that. What locals had been noticing (and smelling), was haze out in the Valley, but none of that was from the Medano Fire. That haze was coming up from the south where other fires were burning in both New Mexico and Arizona.

As I started to write this article late in the afternoon on June 23, a big cloud of smoke was visible from Crestone in the southeast sky—and several locals started to worry. By early evening, that smoke, along with a strong burning smell, made its way into all of Crestone and lasted till sunup the next day.

“I know some people will hate to hear this, but this is a good fire,” says Hutchinson, “We may have to look at a black scar [on the mountain] from this for awhile, but we also should see a lot of new, healthy growth up there in the next few years to come from this.”

As far as the fire burning until the fall, this isn’t so uncommon for such an event when fires burn in remote areas. Whether it actually keeps burning for that long will depend on how dry or wet this summer is, and by saying it will keep going, well, for the most part that means just in very small isolated areas which may flare up a bit at times, with just some smoke coming from it on most days. However, the main part of the fire hopefully will be out within the next few weeks.

The biggest concern to local fire fighters is not so much this fire, but the ones that have not started yet. With 8 straight days of humidity readings under 10% as of June 23, any fire could start and spread very fast. All residents are urged to use caution when making any fires outside. Never leave any campfires or barbeques burning unattended; also make sure any fires you set are not too large and that they are completely put out before you leave an area.

The Crestone Eagle has been posting updates on the fire at www.crestoneeagle.com.  Check the website for current news and postings.

Map of fire perimeters as of June 28. As of 9am on June 28, 5449 acres had been burned. map courtesy Google