Evacuees from Cascade Village were returning to their homes and U.S. 550 between Molas Pass and Hermosa was reopening to escorted traffic on Wednesday, June 13, as the monstrous 416 Fire in La Plata County continued to burn, with more than 1,000 firefighters assigned to the 40-square-mile blaze.
The entire San Juan National Forest was placed on lockdown on Tuesday morning, and the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad announced it would extend its suspension of service through the end of June.
Meanwhile, local officials are struggling to address the impacts to Silverton’s economy, and preparing for a long recovery.
Tuesday morning, residents of some 180 dwellings in the Cascade Village and the nearby area in southern San Juan County were ordered to evacuate, but by Wednesday morning that order had been lifted.
By Tuesday, as the fire rapidly expanded, more than 2,000 homes and businesses had been evacuated, but on Wednesday, evacuation orders were lifted for 560 homes and 20 businesses.
By Wednesday morning, the fire had grown to more than 40 square miles.
Also on Wednesday morning, Incident Commander Alan Sinclair briefed the San Juan County commissioners.
He said the north end of the fire has been “tough,” but fire officials concluded they could allow Cascade Village residents to return.
“Our number one objective on fires is responder safety and public safety,” Sinclair said. “With the fire right along the 550 corridor there, it’s a tough decision to make. The north end of the fire has been tough, but we made a determination that there’s still a threat out there, but we’re confident we can get people in. The consensus is that we’re confident right now that we could re-initiate an evacuation if we needed to.”
But Sinclair said the Cascade Village residents would remain under pre-evacuation notice for now.
“This weekend was a challenging one for us,” Sinclair said. “There was a lot of very extreme fire behavior going on but the crews had time to make a plan before that occurred.”
But firefighters see some help on the horizon.
“We’re going to start seeing some rain,” Sinclair said.
But he added that the 416 Fire will continue to burn for some time.
“There’s going to be fire out there for a while. I think we’re looking for a season-ending event at some point.”
Columbine District Ranger Matt Janowiak said the Forest Service also has hot shot crews, engines and “all kinds of other firefighters prepositioned every day to go on initial attacks if any more fires break out.”
He said the total shutdown of the San Juan National Forest is unprecedented.
“As you can imagine, we really did not have a plan in place,” Janowiak said, “so there are ‘soft spots’” in terms of enforcement.
Elijah Waters, manager for BLM lands in the Gunnision district, said that agency is not looking at any closure.
“It’s something we take very seriously,” Waters said. “We think that Stage 2 (fire) restrictions in place now seem to be working.”
But he acknowledged the situation creates confusion.
“The phone rings about every 15 minutes asking if the Alpine Loop is closed,” Waters said.
Local emergency preparedness officials have had their hands full in the last two weeks, and there’s not much relief in sight.
It started on June 1, with some 470 train passengers stranded in Silverton as the 416 Fire ignited near Hermosa.
“We coordinated with the train to get passengers down south so they did not end up having to spend the night,” said County Emergency Manager Jim Donovan. “We didn’t have to shelter anyone.”
Donovan said things have continued to move quickly.
“The fire is occurring in La Plata County but we are, as a county, suffering substantial impacts from the consequences of that fire,” Donovan said.
Donovan said 14 people are working locally on the disaster response.
He said the mandatory evacuation of the south end of San Juan County earlier this week was apparently the first such evacuation in the county’s history.
“That went very smoothly,” Donovan said.
But he said the town is now left facing the “double-whammy” of having the railroad shut down and limited highway access.
“Right now, if things go according to plan, we’re doing re-entry of residents of the south end of the county today. At noon the highway will be open to escorted traffic,” Donovan said on Wednesday.
But Donovan said the county is taking “a severe economic hit” from the fire.
“Compared to the Gold King, this is astronomically different,” Donovan said, referring to the August 2015 Gold King Mine blowout that sent a plume of orange, metals-laden water down the Animas.
Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce Director DeAnne Gallegos said a lot of businesses have been suffering from the transportation disruptions.
She described Silverton as being at the end of “the longest dead-end cul de sac in the state.”
“We came out of a weak winter and we needed summer to be strong,” Gallegos said. “Potentially, there are some business owners that are dying on the vine.”
Gallegos estimated that business for Blair Street shops is down 80 to 90 percent since June 1.
“We’ve been able to save our special events, but the reality is that we’ve been cut off.”
And Gallegos said visitors who have come here have been spooked by the falling ash and burnt aspen leaves that fell from the sky earlier this week.
Gallegos described Silverton as a small village that needs the outside world — perhaps more than we thought.
“It’s forcing us to have those discussions and talk about our future and ask what we want to be when we grow up,” Gallegos said. “In the end, we’re scrappy and resilient and we will survive and we will get through this.”