The 416 Fire and memories of 2002 — and 1879

2017-18 Snowpack levels in Columbus Basin, in the La Plata Mountains west of Durango, mirrored those of 2002.

UPDATE on 6/8/2018: As of the end of day 6/7, the 416 Fire had reached 5,100 acres and as of nightfall on 6/7, and it’s moving toward homes on the south face of Hermosa Mountain (erroneously referred to as the Hermosa Cliffs, which are further north). Silverton is reportedly “dead, dead, dead” as one resident put it, and some businesses are even shutting down as tourism has slowed to a trickle thanks to the suspension for train service and repeated closures on Highway 550. Tourism Durango seems to be holding steady. For now. 

It was early June and we sat out in the shade in our backyard in Silverton, Colorado, wearing short-sleeves and shorts and drinking cold beverages under a cloudless blue sky. That, in itself, made the day memorable. Blizzards are as likely on Memorial Day as barbecues in this mountain town, elevation 9,318 feet, and sweater-free days usually don’t come along until July.

Someone noticed a puffy cumulonimbus cloud rising up in the gap formed by the Animas River gorge and gave a little cheer. Winter and spring had been freakishly dry and warm, and we really could have used the rain. Something was off about the cloud, however, and we all grew quiet. It wasn’t a cloud at all, but a billowing tower of smoke.

That was 2002 and the smoke was from the Missionary Ridge Fire, ignited that afternoon on a slope about 35 miles south of where we sat. Over the coming weeks, the blaze would eat through 73,000 acres of parched scrub oak and aspen and conifer forest along with 83 structures. The local tourism economy, already dampened by the Dotcom bust and the 9/11 attacks of the previous year, was battered. It would be remembered as southwest Colorado’s summer of discontent.

Memories of and comparisons to that summer emerged last week when the 416 Fire broke out just across the valley from where the Missionary Ridge Fire was sparked 16 years earlier. The comparisons, unfortunately, are apt. Precipitation for the 2018 water year (which started Oct. 1, 2017) has thus far mostly mirrored 2002. Flows on the Animas River are slightly better than they were 16 years ago, but only slightly (see accompanying graphs). The conditions are therefore in place for a rerun of that smoky summer.

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At this point, however, the 416 Fire does not appear to be a Missionary Ridge repeat, at least in terms of severity. The 2002 blaze was started by an errant spark, possibly from a car’s exhaust pipe, in the early afternoon of June 9, and it had blown up to 6,500 acres within hours. As I write this, the 416 Fire is spreading much more slowly, having charred 2,400 acres — and no homes — after four days of burning. High winds and hot temperatures could change all of that, of course.

The cause of the 416 Fire remains unknown. Embers from the coal-fired narrow gauge train that travels between Durango and Silverton are a fire hazard, yet the US Forest Service has reported the ignition point as being in the right of way of Highway 550, meaning the fire just as easily could have been started by a motorist’s tossed cigarette butt. In any event, the railroad and the tourism economy that depends on it will be affected. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge RR officials say they won’t run the train until June 10 at the earliest, and after that will use a diesel locomotive — to the displeasure of authenticity-seeking passengers. (UPDATE 6/6: InciWeb continues to list fire cause as “unknown,” but the coordinates it gives for the fire, and witness accounts, indicate that the fire started near the railroad tracks, not long after the train passed, far from Hwy 550, putting the train at the top of the list of potential culprits. Also, the D&SNGRR announced on 6/5 that train service will be suspended until at least June 17.). 

During the summer of 2002, ridership on the Durango-Silverton train dropped by 33 percent from the previous year, and visits to Mesa Verde National Park, some 50 miles from the Missionary Ridge burn area, fell by 25 percent. Regional hotel occupancy rates slumped by about 10 percent shortly after the fire broke out and failed to rebound that summer. (Curiously, sales tax revenues for Durango didn’t fall accordingly that year, possibly due to the positive effect of having all of those firefighters in town for the summer; sales tax revenues in Silverton were dismal in 2002).

It’s certainly too early to guess how big of a blow the 416 Fire — and any other fires to follow — will have on the regional economy. Still, it’s a tough break coming after a thin ski season and at the beginning of what will surely turn out to be a rough one for commercial rafters, with or without any more fires. It’s also a potent reminder that climate change is bad for a lot of things, including the local economy.

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While 2018 is shaping up to mirror 2002, it also closely resembles another dry and disastrous time — the summer of 1879. No one was keeping official tabs on the weather or snowpack or streamflows back then, but from anecdotal and newspaper reports, we can gather that the 1878-79 winter was just as dry and warm as 2017-18. And the results were equally smoky: In early June of that year, a blaze broke out a few miles north of where the current 416 Fire is burning. It ended up charring 26,000 acres of relatively high-altitude forests.

To read more about the Lime Creek Burn, and the way it was used in anti-Ute propaganda; the local community’s love/hate relationship with the tourist train; and a heck of a lot more, get a copy of my book, River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer and Western scholar, in The Gulch magazine. 

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