"It had a pretty good plume," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Lou French said Monday.
After a fleet of five helicopters and one fixed-wing plane took GPS readings of the fire, which is exclusively on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, Monday's estimated size jumped from 250 to 500 acres.
"You need someone to be a traffic cop" in the air, French said of the fixed-wing pilot's role in the air. "They kind of manage the air space."
As of Monday, two crews of professional firefighters were battling the flames - a "type two crew from the Yampa-Craig area," French said, "and the Tahoe hotshots," a type-one elite crew of firefighters, brought in from California.
"We've had three new starts since this morning," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Rick Barton said Monday evening. "Fortunately, we were able to jump on two of them, but we haven't found the third yet.
"They tend to hide and smolder around before popping up," he explained. As for estimating a time of containment, he said: "It really depends on the weather - and of the resources that we get."
Fires are flaring up from Moab, Utah to Fort Collins, and the finite amount of equipment and crews is parceled out carefully. "We have to prioritize our resources," Barton said. Fires that threaten homes take top priority.
Thanks to heavy spring rainfall, lush green foliage abounds in southwestern Colorado. But things are not what they seem, says Telluride Fire District Director Gary Whitfield, who reported that "all that slash on the ground is starting to dry."
Whitfield declined to speculate on whether or not the Craig Draw fire signals the start of an especially active fire season for the Telluride region. He did, however, observe that "our last significant rainfall happened right before Bluegrass," in early June. That fact, coupled with "some really significant wind events throughout the valley the last several weeks, has led to real dry conditions."
PREVENTIVE FIRES SET
Once dry, slash becomes fuel on the forest floor, something firefighters try to pre-burn whenever it's possible, building control lines "either with a bulldozer or by hand," said French, and then going on to "intentionally light a fire and burn off the fuels.
"You want to burn out as much as possible of the fuel before the fire gets there," he said.
Structure protection engines "have been pre-positioned in San Miguel Canyon," according the BLM-USFS dispatch Monday. "Fire behavior has been erratic due to thunderstorms and steep terrain. On Saturday, the fire burned from east to west. On Sunday, the fire burned from west to east." It is a Ponderosa pine with a pinion-juniper and oakbrush understory.
Of what role if any in containing the Craig fire will be played by the Telluride Fire District, Whit-field said, "We're awaiting orders."
As to whether or not a fire ban will be put into effect, Whitfield said, "That's not for me to say; that call is usually made by the Forest Service in conjunction with the sheriff."
According to San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters, "We're going to let the federal government take the lead on that, and they're still saying it's OK."
And while fuel moisture content "has dropped dramatically in the past couple of weeks," Masters said, "it's still twice what it's been over the last five years."
That ten percent improvement has helped immeasurably, according to Masters, so that the Craig Draw Fire "just isn't running like the other ones have," in a reference to the life-and-property threatening wildfires at Alta Lakes and Burn Canyon in recent years.
"All our problems are lightning-created," Masters said. On an optimistic note, he added, "We're looking at some moisture coming in later this week, apparently."
In addition to the Craig Draw Fire, a 2,800-acre fire is 20 percent contained, nine miles south of Hesperus, and the White River Field Office reports a Pack Trail fire of 800 acres, near Meeker.
The weather forecast for the next few days predicts "an upper level high pressure" in Colorado, Tuesday through Saturday, "with some subtropical moisture triggering increasing dry thunderstorm activity by Thursday. The Interagency Dispatch further reports an expected increase "with the thunderstorm activity over southwest Colorado on Friday, and into much of western Colorado by Saturday."
High risk days from dry lightning are anticipated over southwest Colorado Thursday; fire potential in the Rocky Mountain area should fall off Saturday.