Sheriff: Fire caused by juvenile

Crews make gains; hope for full containment by July 5

Incident Commander Joe Lowe uses a map to discuss the Weber Fire Thursday at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds, which is now the Incident Command Center. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

Incident Commander Joe Lowe uses a map to discuss the Weber Fire Thursday at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds, which is now the Incident Command Center.

The investigation into the cause of the Weber Fire has revealed a person of interest according to a joint press release from the Bureau of Land Management and the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office.

The Thursday press release states the investigation, a joint effort with the BLM and the sheriff’s office, has zeroed in on a juvenile as the potential suspect in causing the 9,279-acre blaze that sparked Friday, June 22.

Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell and BLM Public Affairs Specialist Shannon Borders said details regarding the suspect are not available.

“We have no further information at this time,” Borders said.

Spruell noted the complexities of the case and said it may be some time before any further information will be made public.

“There is not any more information right now and there won’t be for a while due to the nature of the investigation,” Spruell said. “It’s a highly sensitive thing. That’s all I’ve got right now and it just may be a while before there is anything else.”

Regarding the cause of the fire, Spruell declined to pinpoint an exact source, but did say the fire was not caused by a stray bullet, as has been reported.

During a La Plata County commissioner meeting Monday, Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, said the fire was the direct result of a bullet ricochet. Spruell said Thursday there is no truth to the assertion that target practice was involved in the fire.

“It wasn’t started by a bullet,” Spruell said. “I will say that definitively.”

Knowlton did not return calls from the Journal seeking comment Thursday or Friday.

The Weber Fire started around 4:15 p.m. Friday and spread quickly, driven by hot temperatures, unrelenting winds and dry fuels. After an initial assault by local firefighters and resources, a federal incident management team was called in to manage the blaze. The team arrived on Sunday and took management of the fire at 6 p.m. that evening.

The firefighting team quickly grew, reaching 635 personnel by Thursday, aided by a variety of air support and ground machinery.

As of Friday, the fire was at 45 percent contained.

Fire officials now estimate the date of full containment as July 5

Over the course of six days, 140 homes were placed under mandatory evacuation orders and 390 others were given a pre-evacuation notice.

The cost of fighting the fire was estimated at $2.5 million as of Thursday afternoon, said Connie Clementson, field manager with the BLM.

Despite difficult terrain, unpredictable weather and a fire that seems to have a mind of its own, management of the Weber Fire has been successful, according to Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team C Incident Commander Joe Lowe.

“We’ve done well so far,” Lowe said in an interview Thursday afternoon at the incident command center at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds. “We are meeting our objectives for this incident.”

Lowe said the far ends of the fire were still posing challenges to firefighters, with steep, difficult terrain complicating already vicious conditions. The team is currently making preparations for back burns on the northern and southern edges of the fire, a tactical approach that burns out unburned fuels between the fire perimeter and the constructed fire line.

“We want to burn out the intermediate fuel so there will be no more fuel for the fire to consume and the fire will then burn itself out,” Lowe said, pointing out trouble areas on a map hanging on an improvised information wall at the fairgrounds. “The fire is so hot and spreading so fast that we can’t send firefighters into those areas.”

With flame lengths over six foot and a rate of spread of more than a mile an hour, a back burn is the most reasonable method to gain control of the ends of the fire, Lowe said.

“It’s not tenable to go fight it at those points,” he said. “We just can’t do it. We have to drop back and take the fire on, on our terms.”

Back burns were scheduled to begin Friday, if weather patterns cooperated. A few evenings this week have seen unpredictable winds in the Weber Canyon area that would not be conducive to back burning.

“The entire thing is weather dependant,” Lowe said. “We have to make sure if we back burn all the fuels are consumed or all we are doing is drying fuels and that would support fire growth.”

Though residents may see smoke in the next few days as a result of back burning, Lowe said the smoke indicates the fuels are being consumed and the fire is being contained.

“People will see smoke again, and that is a good thing,” he said. “That means we are bringing the fire to closure.”

Lowe noted that due to the unstable conditions on the two ends of the fire, evacuations orders are still a necessity for the area.

While some evacuees who live on County Road 41 north of County Road G have been allowed to return home, most are still under evacuation, including Elk Spring Ranch and Elk Stream subdivisions, the subdivision south of U.S. Highway 160 and east of County Road 41, at the intersection of County Road J.9 and Hwy. 160, and those on County Road 41 south of County Road G. The sheriff’s department was escorting residents to their homes for short periods on Thursday, but orders have not been lifted.

“Some people have been let in, but we still have work to do on this fire,” Lowe said. “We can’t have homeowners go in and not have a secure edge on the fire.”

Containment numbers should begin to increase rapidly over the next few days, Lowe said, as crews work to draw lines and mop up hot spots.

“We don’t want to leave residents with a fire hung up on the hill with no line around it,” he said. “If we did that the chances of it coming back to life would be great.”

Lowe thanked the local community for its support during the firefighting efforts and said the volunteer departments and BLM and U.S. Forest Service crews which initially responded to the blaze did “tremendous” work in stopping the fire from consuming structures. To date, only one outbuilding has been lost to the blaze.

Partner agencies on the Weber Fire include the BLM, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, Montezuma County, the state of Colorado, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Montezuma and La Plata county sheriff’s offices, Montezuma and La Plata county emergency management offices, Colorado State Forest Service, Colorado State Patrol, the town of Mancos and local volunteer fire departments.

Information on the Weber Fire is available at www.inciweb.org. The Mancos fire hotline can be reached at 564-4999.

Reach Kimberly Benedict at kimberlyb@cortezjournal.com.