Firefighters back off growing fires in dangerous dead forests north of Pagosa Springs in southwestern Colorado

Firefighters have backed off for now as two lightning-sparked wildfires north of Pagosa Springs in southwestern Colorado expand, burning across more than 1,416 acres Wednesday morning amid dry and fuel-loaded conditions that U.S. Forest Service officials called highly favorable to flames.

The wet spring led to the growth of exceptionally thick grasses that now leads to flare-ups.

The 1,133-acre Quartz Ridge fire was burning deep inside the South San Juan Wilderness – about 13 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs, according to the latest data on a federal fire information website and U.S. Forest Service officials.

The 283-acre Bear Creek fire was burning 23 miles northwest of Pagosa Springs, west of the Weminuche Valley, and nearly doubled in size overnight.

Federal land managers have declared a full suppression approach to both fires, even though the national policy calls for letting fires in remote forests burn when that can be done safely — in order to let forests benefit ecologically from fire and become more resilient and healthy.

But the practical difficulties of suppressing the Quartz fire, deep in the South San Juan Wilderness, has prevented ground and aerial attacks.

“There is no way to engage the fire because it is extremely deep in the wilderness. There are no roads. No trails. It is burning in extremely thick timber that is mostly standing dead and downed trees. It is extremely steep terrain. We’re not going to put firefighters at risk,” San Juan National Forest spokeswoman Lorena Williams said.

“We are developing plans for when the fire reaches terrain where we can engage it,” Williams said. “In areas surrounding the wilderness, we do have critical infrastructure — utility power lines, gas lines.”

Fire managers were monitoring the fire using aircraft on Wednesday. Health officials issued air quality alerts as the fire kicked up smoke that was wafting toward Del Norte and other communities on the west side of the San Luis Valley in Rio Grande, Conejos, and Hinsdale counties.

The Bear Creek fire was burning in similarly unhealthy and remote forest terrain, forcing firefighters into a standby position for now. “There’s beetle kill and heavy dead and downed timber. This makes it really dangerous and really difficult to fight the fire. We’re waiting for the fire to come down into the Weminuche Valley.”

There, firefighters on standby were setting up sprinklers and other protection at ranch homes in the area.

Multiple other, small fires have started, ignited by lightning, around the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado over the past week as moderate drought conditions spread. Firefighters squelched most before they blew up across more than a tenth of an acre, Williams said.

“We’re definitely at the point where we have elevated fire weather and critical conditions. We have significantly more grass fuel loading – those flashy fuels — due to the really substantial spring rain,” she said. “But now we’re seeing hot and dry conditions.”

As the largest Quartz fire burns, forest land managers recognized that “it is appropriate to allow a naturally ignited fire in the wilderness to burn under the right conditions where it is not posing a threat to life and safety,” Williams said. “But the Quartz Ridge fire is exhibiting extreme fire behavior and the smoke impacts in surrounding communities are significant. So this is not the right time and place.”

No evacuations have been ordered, no buildings have burned and no injuries were reported.

Elsewhere in western Colorado, firefighters with air support from helicopters lugging buckets of water were battling a lightning-sparked wildfire that also expanded — the Little Mesa fire — which had burned across 359 acres in the Dominguez Escalante National Conservation Area southwest of Delta, according to the latest aerial mapping.

And the Dry Lake fire near Bayfield, which burned across 1,372 acres, was listed on Wednesday as 65% contained.

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