Spruce Creek Fire burning near Haycamp, Colorado

Spruce Creek Fire from the lookout 05/20 -- ©2024 Rick Freimuth
Spruce Creek Fire from the lookout 05/20 — ©2024 Rick Freimuth

The Spruce Creek Fire took off on May 14 and is burning on  the San Juan National Forest northeast of Dolores, Colorado. The fire’s inside a network of FS roads within an established RxFire burn unit.

Two hotshot crews, two wildland fire modules, and an engine and crew are staffing the fire, along with a Type 3 incident management team.

Lightning ignited the fire Tuesday, and it had burned about 10 acres northeast of Dolores on the Haycamp Mesa by yesterday evening, according to The Journal.

Last month the Dolores Ranger District announced plans to burn 4,577 acres across Haycamp Mesa, and the lightning strike gave them a good start on the fuels reduction project.

Pat Seekins, prescribed fire and fuels program manager for the San Juan, said it’s thus far a low-intensity surface fire, and it’s doing exactly what they need it to do for fuels management in the area. Crews have prepped about 5600 acres. [As of 05/21 the fire’s estimated at 1640 acres; yesterday firefighters used a couple of drones in aerial ignition.]

Spruce Creek Fire on the San Juan
The Spruce Creek Fire is burning northeast of Dolores on the San Juan National Forest. Crews are using existing roads as containment lines, and hope to continue the 10-acre fire next week into the planned 4500-acre prescribed burn. San Juan National Forest photo

The Durango Herald reported that firing operations should begin Tuesday under the management of a Type 3 IMT and should wrap up by Friday. “This is a great opportunity to further reduce the long-term fire risk in this area,” added Seekins. “It’s early in the fire year and we have the resources available, in terms of engines, hand crews, and helicopters, that will help us keep the fire within pre-identified boundaries.”

map - San Juan National Forest
San Juan National Forest map

The ponderosa and aspen forest with gambel oak understory has a natural cycle of burning every 10 to 15 years. The Haycamp Mesa, though, has not seen fire in at least 40 years, according to Seekins; he said it’s had very little fire history and really needs fire in there.

Gambel oak in Colorado has a history in the records of dangerous fires.

1994 South Canyon Gambel oak
July 6, 1994 – Gambel oak on the South Canyon Fire – Storm King Mountain, Colorado

Vegetation on the 1994 South Canyon Fire consisted primarily of Gambel oak, which was more than 50 years old and did not contain much dead material.

It formed a dense, green, continuous closed canopy, 6 to 12 feet tall and appeared to be unaffected by spring frosts.

Visibility within the stand was limited. The surface fuels beneath the canopy consisted of a 3 to 6 inch layer of leaf litter.

The Spruce Creek Fire started in an area that local fire and resource managers have studied for years, according to Dolores District Ranger Nick Mustoe. He says fire managers are securing indirect boundaries along natural features and existing roads to take advantage of favorable weather conditions for managing the fire.

Burning along the northern perimeter 05/20/24 -- IMT photo
Burning along the northern perimeter 05/20/24 — IMT photo

The strategy of using naturally occurring wildfires for hazardous fuels reduction – a policy that officials refer to as “indirect containment,” as opposed to the more derogatory and incendiary “let it burn” label that detractors have coined – is relatively new in practice on the San Juan, which would need at least 30,000 acres burned annually to catch up with the historic natural fire cycle.

Spruce Creek Fire from the lookout 05/20 -- ©2024 Rick Freimuth
Spruce Creek Fire from the lookout 05/20 — ©2024 Rick Freimuth

Smoke will be visible to travelers along Colorado Hwy. 184 between Mancos and Dolores, and to residents of Montezuma County throughout next week. Updates will be posted on Inciweb.