|Wisps of smoke still rise from the Junkins Fire in the Wet Mountains nearly six and half weeks after the fire started. According to the Wet Mountain Fire Protection District fire chief Dave Tonsing, a small crew of 12 National Forest firefighters remain in the area, managing the persistent flames, and monitoring for any fire growth. The local fire district is responsible for a section of the fire that lies west of Highway 165 near the initial ignition point.
The Junkins Fire started Monday, Oct. 17, in Junkins Park when a metal shed was blown by the wind into a power pole, knocking it over with the wires becoming entangled in a barb-wire fence. The powerful wind gusts quickly propelled the fire which burned 18,403 acres. Most of the acreage was burned in the first day.
At one point, more than 900 hot-shot federal firefighters battled the blaze, with help from assorted aircraft and fire apparatus. Most of the firefighters were headquartered in a temporary tent city set up at the County Fairgrounds in Westcliffe.
Nine homes in the area and 17 outbuildings were destroyed in the fire with one reported injury and thankfully no deaths. The cost to battle the fire stands at nearly $11.2 million dollars, with much of the funding coming from national and state sources. To put the cost in perspective, the entire budget of the local volunteer fire district is $400,000 a year.
“There is still burning within the fire boundaries, which the National Forest Service is thrilled with as it is consuming fuel without becoming a massive fire again.” commented Tonsing. “Even until about four years ago, the National Forest Service tried to prevent any burning, but it is now accepted that it is important for fires to burn, which creates a ‘mosaic’ of burns that help the ecosystem and prevent larger fires from burning in the future.”
Glancing at a final map of the fire in the Westcliffe fire station, it quickly becomes evident that while the Junkins was a very large and destructive fire, it was halted only when it hit the boundary of the 2005 Mason Gulch fire. “All the fire personnel wondered what would happen when the fire hit the old boundary of the Mason fire, and despite the dryness and wind, the fire just burned out when it moved into the area.” Tonsing said as he pointed to the map. Looking at the bright colors of the fire map, mosaic is an appropriate term.
The fire is expected to stop burning only when significant snow falls; until then, the fire keeps smoldering on the hillsides.
– Jordan Hedberg