A local resident suggested to the Montezuma County commissioners on Monday, Aug. 14, that officials with the San Juan National Forest deliberately accelerated two wildfires on public lands northeast of Dolores in order to conduct some sort of unregulated prescribed burn – an accusation soundly rejected by Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla.
Casey McClellan, an ardent motorized-use advocate and a frequent critic of the Forest Service over trail restrictions, arrived at the county commission meeting Monday moments after the board had adjourned. After some hesitation, the commissioners reconvened in order to hear what he had to say.
McClellan proceeded to lay out a lengthy timeline for both the Plateau and West Guard fires, quoting from people who had told him they had seen suspicious things that led them to believe Forest Service officials were increasing the burns on purpose.
Padilla had responded to similar charges earlier in the meeting after Dexter Gill, a retired forester, read a lengthy statement during public comment that accused the Forest Service of using “fire bombs” to spur the Plateau Fire back to life after it was nearly extinguished.
“That’s not correct,” Padilla told the commissioners. “We never allowed it to be a controlled burn – it was full suppression from Day 1.”
He told the Four Corners Free Press that helicopters had indeed been used to ignite fire on the ground, but only as a means of doing burnout operations ahead of the wildfires.
The Plateau Fire was ignited by lightning on July 22 about 13 miles north of the town of Dolores. It eventually swept through more than 17,000 acres but is now more than 95 percent contained.
The West Guard Fire, in the Glade area of the national forest northwest of the Plateau blaze, was also sparked by lightning. It was discovered July 22 by someone in a helicopter working the Plateau Fire. The West Guard Fire burned more than 1,400 acres but is now mostly contained.
McClellan told the commissioners he had been asked by his cousin, Richard McClellan, to speak on his behalf. He said Richard and some other people were in a cabin in the vicinity of the Plateau Fire on July 22 when they spotted the smoke from the tree where the blaze began. The fire grew very little over the next day, and they returned to Cortez.
On Tuesday, July 24, McClellan recounted, two people checking the area stopped by Richard’s cabin and saw a helicopter flying back and forth over the trees up to 20 times for 30 to 40 minutes. Shortly thereafter, the fire’s intensity increased, they said.
Then on July 27, McClellan told the commissioners, his cousin saw a helicopter dropping objects into Plateau Canyon. His cousin told him the fire had been mostly contained at that point, but after the helicopter left, the blaze’s intensity increased.
McClellan said the fire took six days to grow to 70 acres but suddenly surged to 335 acres on July 28 and kept expanding rapidly thereafter.
“It seems extremely irresponsible to take this little fire that could have been put out and let it grow to 17,00 acres,” he said.
McClellan also expressed concerns about the West Guard Fire. He said a man who saw the fire on July 22 when it had just begun spoke with three BLM employees in the vicinity and they told him it would be allowed to burn overnight because there was a prescribed burn in the area anyway, even though the nearest such burn was nowhere near.
McClellan said it rained on July 25, and by July 26 the fire was virtually out. However, he then got a call from someone with the Forest Service who said they were going to reignite the West Guard Fire using a helicopter.
Padilla told the Four Corners Free Press that on July 24, the Forest Service did conduct burnout operations on the West Guard Fire. “So if someone saw a helicopter going back and forth [on the 24th], that was on the West Guard Fire.”
Padilla said firefighters identified Forest Service Road 512, which goes to the Glade Guard Station, Road 514 on the east side of the station and Road 504 on the south side as “control features” for battling the blaze. The meadow to the west of the station between roads 514 and 504 was set as the western boundary for the flames, “and we did burn out the fuel there,” he said.
Padilla said firefighters dug a handline around the guard station and burned out the area over approximately a day and a half with the help of a helicopter dispensing plastic spheres that contain chemicals to ignite small flames.
Regarding the Plateau Fire, Padilla said it began in a tree inside steep, rugged Plateau Canyon, which made a direct approach to battling the blaze unwise.
“Unfortunately, it was immediately in the canyon when it started and we weren’t able to put people in there. The tree was about 250 feet from the canyon edge and when people got there the fire was already down in the canyon. So we had to implement an indirect but full suppression.
“Had the fire not been in the canyon, we would have had more ability to go directly against it, but being in the canyon really limited our options to deal with it.”
Padilla said by July 27, the Plateau Fire had progressed southward, propelled by an unseasonable wind, and officials decided it was time to remove some fuels.
“Normally here in the Southwest at this time of year we have a southwest wind,” he said. “Those first couple of days, we did, but on Day 6, the 26th or 27th, we got an unpredicted north wind that persisted almost another week.” That wind, he said, kept pushing the fire southward.
Again, officials decided to remove fuel between the active fire and the control features, which in this case were roads 523 and 524. There were also burnout operations within the canyon itself, he said, “to ensure the fire doesn’t have the ability to gain a lot of momentum and intensity and ran out of the canyon uncontrolled.”
“When you can’t go direct on a fire – we couldn’t put people in that canyon or build a fire line – the only thing we could do was to use fire up on the top to remove fuel,” Padilla said.
“You’re using fire to fight fire, basically.”
Padilla had also told the commissioners that the Forest Service had never planned or intended to let either wildfire simply burn, and that transcripts of the radio traffic from those days made this clear.
“It’s definitely documented [that] it was not a controlled burn but full suppression – it’s always been about protecting private property and other non-Forest Service lands.”
Responding to a question from Commissioner Keenan Ertel, Padilla assured him that the fires would have “little on no impact” on water quality at McPhee Reservoir, which is fed by the Dolores River.
The commissioners did not comment on the allegations made by McClellan and Gill. Ertel did ask McClellan whether he was insulating that the Forest Service had been conducting an “unofficial” controlled burn, and McClellan said, “I AM suggesting that.”
By Gail Binkly and David Long