|Wind-driven blaze destroys five homes; 400 firefighters on scene; zero containment
The destructive Junkins Fire which started before dawn on Monday in Junkins Park has consumed nearly 17,000 acres as of Wednesday morning, with no signs of containment.
At least five homes and a dozen outbuildings have been destroyed. More than 300 firefighters and assorted aircraft are attempting to gain an upper-hand on the wildfire. Nearly 200 homes have been evacuated, with scores more under pre-evacuation status. Authorities say as many as 300 homes are threatened.
The fire continues to rage along Highway 165 and in the South Hardscrabble area, much of it in rugged, inaccessible terrain.
According to Sheriff Shannon Byerly, the fire was first reported at 3:40 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 17, in Junkins Park, along CR 358, about 11 miles east of Westcliffe. Heavy winds reportedly caused a metal outbuilding to blow into a power line, sparking the fire.
By mid-day Monday, the fire had exploded to the east, burning more than 11,000 acres. Winds on Monday were gusting up to 70 mph.
The blaze quickly spread easterly, through the rugged terrain along Highway 165. It pushed its way into the Beulah area in Pueblo County, which is recovering from a recent wildfire there.
Authorities say five homes have been destroyed, including two in the Junkins Park area and one near mile marker 5 on Highway 165. The exact locations of the other homes werenít specified, but are believed to also be along Highway 165 which has dozens of year-round and seasonal homes scattered along the highway and in the surrounding mountains.
Firefighting efforts didnít fully ratchet up until early Tuesday. The heavy winds on Monday prevented any aircraft support, and full battalions of federal firefighters didnít arrive until Tuesday, though dozens of local, state and regional crews did their best to save homes Monday.
The winds died down late Monday night. Additionally, portions of the fire had moved into areas burned during the massive 2005 Mason Gulch Fire which slowed its progress. Heavy smoke swirled throughout the region, with it being visible 40 miles distant. Noticeable ash had fallen as far away as Avondale in eastern Pueblo County.
Several roadways remain closed, including portions of Highway 96, Highway 165, and county roads 358, 386, 387, 388, 389 and 390.
The entire Junkins Park area was evacuated early Monday, as was Highway 165 from MacKenzie Junction to the Ophir Creek area. Also evacuated was the South Hardscrabble area as well as Greenwood, CR 398. Nearby Wetmore remains under a pre-evacuation notice.
A Type 1 fire team of the U.S. Forest Service was to take command of the fire on Wednesday. A number of USFS hotshot crews arrived in Westcliffe on Tuesday. Also fighting the fire are crews from the Bureau of Land Management, the Wet Mountain Fire Protection District, Pueblo County and other agencies from throughout Southern Colorado.
Aiding the Custer County Sheriffís Office in law enforcement efforts were departments from Pueblo and Fremont counties.
On Wednesday, ten aircraft were aiding the efforts, including helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. Governor Hickenlooper also ordered the Colorado National Guard to provide air support.
Several formal staging areas were in place, including at the main fire station in Westcliffe and at the Wetmore FD.
Evacuation shelters had been set up at Valley Bible Fellowship and the First Southern Baptist Church in Westcliffe, as well as at locations in Florence and Pueblo. On Tuesday, only a handful of people were seen milling about the Westcliffe locations.
Animal rescue sites were established at the Custer County Fairgrounds and the Colorado State Fairgrounds.
Authorities were also concerned about hunters in the area, with the seasonís first major season having opened this past Saturday. At a press briefing in Westcliffe on Tuesday, Custer County Sheriff Byerly and Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor said deputies had made multiple contacts with hunting parties.
The U.S. Postal Service said it is unable to make deliveries to about 75 addresses in Westcliffe and 30 in the Beulah area; mail is being held at the respective post offices.
As of presstime time on Wednesday, the fire had moved through nearly 17,000 acres of mixed conifers, aspen and grasslands. That equals more than 26 square miles, or more than three percent of the entire landmass in Custer County.