by Eric Mullens
WALSENBURG — With Red Flag conditions, Stage II fire restrictions in place in Huerfano County due to the dry extreme fire danger conditions, it wasn’t too surprising that on Wednesday, June 27, a call was placed to Huerfano County Emergency Dispatch reporting a single column of smoke observed to the west.
A sheriff’s office command staff deputy was dispatched and after driving west on U.S. Hwy 160, he confirmed the sighting, and indicated the smoke was not coming from a location in Huerfano County, but rather from neighboring Costilla County. Little did officials in Huerfano know, that Wednesday afternoon would be the last routine day they would see in the days, and possibly weeks to come.
Huerfano County prepares:
By midday Thursday, June 28, local government, fire, law enforcement, and emergency management officials in Huerfano County had set up a command center at the La Veta Fire Protection District Station #1 in La Veta to monitor the Spring Creek Fire, then burning some 6,000 acres in Costilla County.
As the World Journal went to press on July 4, 2018, the Spring Creek Fire had consumed 94,125 acres in Costilla and Huerfano counties, damaged or destroyed over 100 structures and had activated two professional fire management teams; Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team Blue and Team Black.
Reports from incident command centers Wednesday said the fire containment was 5 %. An estimated containment date released late Tuesday night indicated the fire could burn until the end of the month.
The incident management teams would work the fire in two parts; the Blue Team working the North Spring Fire and the Black Team working the South Spring Fire. With command centers set up in Fort Garland in Costilla County and in Walsenburg and La Veta, state and federal firefighting assets would include fixed wing air tankers, helicopter tankers, an eyes in the sky specialized MMA (Multi-Mission Aircraft), government and private heavy equipment earth movers and nearly 1,000 professional and county volunteer firefighters.
Fire breaks out in Costilla County:
Incident command reports say the fire began at approximately 3:30 pm June 27 in a rural location nine miles northeast of Fort Garland, the eastern gateway community into Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The cause was human.
Arson arrest made:
As the Spring Creek Fire grew, Costilla County Sheriff’s Deputies had arrested Danish national Jesper Joergensen, 52, of Costilla County, for suspected arson.
An arrest affidavit said the man suspected of causing the massive Spring Fire in Costilla and Huerfano counties didn’t use water to put out a small fire he set on his property.
Costilla County Deputy Karina Garcia was the first law officer to make contact with Joergensen, who was stopped while driving away from the suspected ignition point of the fire. According to the arrest affidavit, Joergensen initially said he was burning trash. That story would change with the suspect saying he was cooking in a fire pit, but not before he told deputies he didn’t know how the fire started. He taken into custody Thursday, June 28 as the Spring Fire grew to 14,424 acres later that day. Charging documents say the suspect was arrested for first degree arson after knowingly admitting he used fire outdoors in the area where the fire began. The Department of Homeland Security-Immigration Customs Enforcement also said Joergensen was in the country illegally because his visa had expired.
Fire moves into Huerfano County:
At 8 am on Friday, June 29 the Huerfano County Commissioners called a special meeting and passed Resolution 18-51, a resolution declaring local disaster. The document, necessary for the county to obtain disaster relief funds and assistance from the state, was forwarded to Governor John Hickenlooper, who signed it the same day. The resolution said in part, ”The effect of this declaration of disaster shall be to activate the response and recovery aspects of any and all applicable local and inter-jurisdictional disaster emergency plans and to authorize the furnishing of aid and assistance under such plans.”
A press conference would be held in front of La Veta Town Hall on June 29, the day the fire moved into Huerfano County. Local government officials and incident command fire staff would host the first of many public meetings in La Veta that evening.
Cuchara area evacuations called for:
Earlier in the day Friday, Huerfano Sheriff Bruce Newman was checking the area of Sulfur Springs Road and the Indian Creek area when the fire crossed county roads 420/421, promoting the official evacuation of Cuchara/Pine Haven and, in Newman’s words, “basically, all areas south of the La Veta city limits.”
Additional areas would come under mandatory evacuations including the Navajo area and communities south of Gardner along Hwy. 69.
Earlier this week officials said approximately 2,200 Huerfano residents had been evacuated via Code Red telephone notifications and deputies knocking on doors.
In addition to firefighters, dozens of additional law enforcement personnel would be called to Huerfano County from neighboring counties and communities as well as additional state troopers to assist with evacuation notifications, roadblock security, and to secure the areas and communities that have been evacuated. By Monday, July 2, Colorado National Guard troops would be assisting in those duties as well.
Developments Wednesday afternoon, July 4:
HUERFANO COUNTY — As off 11;30 am July 4, incident command officials reported continued direct and indirect fire line construction and intentions to improve and secure containment lines that have already been established. Scouting and implement point protection strategies continue to be developed to protect structures, critical infrastructure and travel corridors in direct firing operations (back burns) will continue along the Indian Creek drainage. The late morning report said the fire is expected to remain active through the evening again. Fire will continue to follow heavy continuous fuels, particularly to the north, the northeast towards La Veta, and to the south towards Cuchara and Forbes Park regardless of general wind direction. Weather concerns include continued Red Flag conditions until 8 pm. Possible isolated thunderstorms could produce gusty outflow winds and dry lightning. There is an increasing chance of thunderstorm activity in the region through tomorrow.
LAS ANIMAS COUNTY — A pre-evacuation order is now in place for all residents in the area south of the Huerfano/Las Animas county line; south to CR 42 and east to CR 21.7 and west to Highway12. This area includes all phases of Cuchara Pass Ranches, Timber Creek Ranch, Timber Ridge at Cordova Pass, and Spanish Peak Ranch Estates. Residents in these areas should start planning and preparing to evacuate, if the need should arise.