Wind-driven fire ran until the gusts died

Colorado — April 17, 2018

117 Fire Colorado springs pueblo
Satellite photo showing the location of the 117 fire south of Colorado Springs. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:30 p.m. MDT April 17, 2018.

By Dave Marston

The Marshall Fire that demolished more than 1,000 homes along the front range of Colorado two weeks ago was not unique. This particular kind of fire happened before, on April 17, 2018 — 115 miles due south of the Marshall Fire.

The wildfire was simply called the MM 117 fire for mile marker 117 on Interstate 25 south of Colorado Springs, in El Paso County. Despite earning a federal disaster declaration and scorching over 43,000 acres it never rated a real name.

Like the Marshall Fire, this grass fire came on fast and stopped almost as soon as the winds died. At the time, it was the fifth-largest in state history but 100 percent contained in 72 hours.

It began when a motorist, their car dragging its muffler, sent sparks into the air when there was just 4 percent humidity and winds blowing up to 80 miles per hour. Sparks ignited the grass. Fire investigators on the scene said any motorist with an overheating engine could have sparked a blaze. The entire day it seemed all of Colorado was hammered by winds that grounded planes at Denver International, then grounded firefighting planes as well.

Unable to reach homeowners by car, with the fire racing away, frantic officials resorted to pleas over Facebook message boards: “A deputy sheriff said he was driving at 35 mph near the fire Tuesday, April 17th, 2018, and it was moving faster than he was,” reported Wildfire Today.

The final tally was horrifying for a fire that lasted barely the length of a holiday weekend — 24 structures destroyed, over 43,000 acres scorched, and “untold number of livestock,” mostly beef cattle killed, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Speed was a big part of the story. The fire raced due east and covered 20 miles in just a few hours. Along the way, It leaped over roads, torched houses and seemed impossible to stop. Yet when winds died and rains came, containment of the fire happened quickly. 

There is a stunning lesson to be learned from this grassland fire: We have little control over wind-whipped grasslands fires once they get going. All we can do is run.

David Marston
David Marston

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range,, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.

This article was first published on Writers on the Range.

Officials confirm 23 homes destroyed in 117 Fire

Firefighters have slowed the spread of the 41,000-acre “MM 117 Fire” between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. The name comes from the mile marker on Interstate 25 near the point of origin.

The early reports indicated that 10 structures had burned, but officials have revised that to 23 residences, with 7 of them being unoccupied.

The state requested the Rocky Mountain Area Type 2 Incident Management Team Black, with Incident Commander Mark Hatcher, to manage the fire. They assumed command at 6 a.m. today (Thursday).

When the fire started Tuesday the wind was far too strong for any aircraft to assist firefighters, but Wednesday brought more favorable conditions allowing several contract air tankers and military helicopters to drop retardant and water.

Map 117 Fire
Map of the 117 Fire, April 19, 2018.


Time-lapse of Colorado fires detected by satellite

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This is a time-lapse of wildfires in southeast Colorado detected by the fire temperature sensor on the GOES 16 satellite between 1700 UTC April 17 and 0400 UTC April 18. The fire near the arrow is the 117 Fire between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. At the lower right a fire can be seen burning from Colorado into Stanton and Morton counties in Kansas. Several other fires can also be seen. The fires were pushed by very strong winds that stirred up clouds of dust.

117 Fire burns structures south of Colorado Springs

The sheriff’s office reports 10 structures have burned

Above: satellite photo showing the location of the 117 fire south of Colorado Springs. The red dots on the map represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:30 p.m. MDT April 17, 2018.

(UPDATED at 11:33 a.m. MDT April 18, 2018)

A more accurate estimate of the size of the 117 Fire between Colorado Springs and Pueblo puts it at 41,000 acres. Military helicopters, Chinook and Blackhawks, are assisting firefighters by dropping water.

A deputy sheriff said he was driving at 35 mph near the fire Tuesday and it was moving faster than he was.

Map of the 117 Fire
Map of the 117 Fire, at 8 a.m. MDT April 18, 2018


(UPDATED at 7:15 a.m. MDT April 18, 2018)

The El Paso County Sheriff’s office reported Wednesday morning that the 117 Fire between Colorado Springs and Pueblo, Colorado has burned an estimated 60,000 acres. The fire is still active in El Paso and Pueblo Counties but the wind speeds recorded at Fort Carson and Pueblo have decreased Wednesday morning — calm to five mph, compared to gusts of 50 to 80 mph Tuesday afternoon.

The wind on Tuesday was too strong for helicopters, air tankers, or Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft to fight or even map the fire, but officials hope to get the MMA into the air this morning to give firefighters a better idea of the scope of the blaze.


(Originally published at 9:38 p.m. MDT April 17, 2018)

The 117 Fire has burned at least 4,000 acres about halfway between Colorado Springs and Pueblo, Colorado. The sheriff’s office reports 10 structures have burned. The fire started Tuesday along the Interstate 25 corridor about halfway between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. It spread quickly pushed by very strong winds.

There are few public weather stations near the fire but a station north of Pueblo recorded sustained wind speeds between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. of 45 to 60 mph gusting at more than 80 mph. The minimum relative humidity was four percent. A weather station at Fort Carson south of Colorado Springs had winds of 30 to 40 gusting above 50 mph during the same period.

Until about 2 p.m. the wind was out of the southwest. The extreme speed created a very narrow fire that grew seven miles to the northeast by 2:30 p.m. Monday. Later in the afternoon the wind shifted to come out of the south and then the southeast and east. The shifting direction could cause firefighters to be caught unexpectedly near a rapidly advancing flank or head of the fire.

The El Paso County Sheriff’s office announced mandatory evacuations on their Facebook page.

There are reports that a law enforcement patrol vehicle burned and a fire engine was damaged by the quickly spreading fire.

The county declared the fire a disaster and they are in negotiations with the state to take over the fire.

The area was under a Red Flag Warning Monday and Monday evening. The forecast for the 117 Fire area Monday night calls for 20 mph winds gusting to 30-40 decreasing to 7 mph by 8 a.m. Tuesday. The high temperature Tuesday should be 59 degrees with 13 percent relative humidity  along with much calmer winds.

The wind on Monday was far too strong to allow any helicopters or air tankers to take suppression action on the fire, but that will probably change on Tuesday.