Decker Fire burns ... now into sixth week

The Decker Fire has been burning south and southeast of Salida for going on six weeks.

For the second time, the fire took an unexpected run on Sunday, blowing across the Rainbow Trail and making a rapid push to the northeast toward Bear Creek, Wellsville and Swissvale.

According to information put out by the U.S. Forest Service, crews working to establish a fire line at the trail late Sunday morning were forced to use escape routes to get to safety zones where they regrouped and later re-engaged the fire.

Fire officials then implemented structure protection steps to protect homes in the fire’s path while initiating a direct attack on the fire, which included helicopter water and fixed-wing slurry drops.

The fire taking off prompted both Fremont and Chaffee sheriffs to order mandatory evacuations for residents of Bear Creek, Wellsville and Swissvale as heavy smoke blanketed the canyon.

This fire has a mind of its own. Most wildfires in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West occur in June and July. By contrast, the Decker Fire started Sept. 8 with a lightning strike in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness just southeast of Poncha Pass.

For the next three weeks, fire officials monitored the fire, for the most part letting it burn in rugged wilderness terrain, allowing it to clean up beetle-killed and blown-down trees.

In late September, apparently recognizing potential threats to nearby communities, fire officials turned over management of the fire to a Type 1 team, effective Oct. 4.

On Oct. 1, fire officials held a community meeting in Salida to discuss the fire. That night a stiff south wind ignited embers and the fire blew up by some 1,500 acres, spreading over Methodist Mountain’s north and northeast faces, spurring emergency middle-of-the-night evacuations for several neighborhoods on county roads at Methodist’s base.

At the fire’s root is an unusually dry stretch that dates back to Aug. 1 and even earlier. Actual precipitation information for Methodist and the northern Sangres for the past summer is unknown. However, residents who live at the foot of Methodist noted minimal rainfall through August and nothing like normal summer monsoons.

The area received only a trace of rain from the Sept. 4 cloudburst that dumped an inch on downtown Salida and washed out Arkansas Hills trails.

Moisture conditions just east of Poncha Pass were obviously sufficiently dry in September for a wildfire to catch and gradually grow.

Now, the first two weeks of October have been dry, with only a brief respite from the storm that blew through the state a week ago, bringing higher humidity levels for a day but just a smattering of snow to the valley and the fire area.

Otherwise it’s been unseasonably warm with sunny days and low, low humidity. And wind.

Combined with a dry forest for fuel, warm sun, low humidity and brisk west-southwest wind, the Decker Fire has grown, as of Monday to 8,100 acres, now threatening Bear Creek and neighborhoods in the canyon east of Salida and Howard.

The next chance for moisture is Sunday with the Weather Channel calling for a 30 percent chance of precipitation for the Salida area. Then more clear, dry, breezy conditions with low humidity are in the forecast for the next five days.

This is not exactly the news we’d like to see.

Most of the residents who were ordered to evacuate the night of Oct. 1 have been able to return to their homes. However, after the fire’s run Sunday, for residents of the Bear Creek area, Wellsville and Swissvale, new mandatory evacuation orders are in effect with firefighters working to protect homes and establish fire lines.

It’s becoming an all too familiar story with no relief in sight.

— MJB