MONTE VISTA — RIO GRANDE COUNTY, Colo. — A wind-driven wildfire burned several structures and about 17 acres in the city of Monte Vista on Wednesday afternoon leaving at least six families displaced.
The fire started around 12:15 p.m. on the north side of the city. Police Chief George Dingfelder said the fire was almost immediately out of control and approaching structures as winds gusted to 30-40 miles per hour.
Police officers and firefighters asked for emergency notifications to be sent to people in the area and started going door-to-door to force people to evacuate because of the quickly spreading fire. Some of the structures that burned in the fire caught fire almost immediately, Dingfelder said.
“We struggled at times to stay in front of this fire and stay out of the way of it because the winds were so strong,” Dingfelder said.
Mandatory evacuations were ordered for people living north of 285 and between Shafer Road to the west and County Road 1E to the east. As of 6 p.m., the evacuation zone was between Acequia Drive at the southern edge, Truman Ave. on the eastern edge, Washington Street on the western edge, and the city’s edge at the northern edge. The evacuation zone was reduced to less than 30 homes as of 9 p.m.
The forward spread of the fire had stopped by 6 p.m. and was no longer growing, but there were still hot spots crews were working to extinguish.
Dingfelder said around 100 homes were initially evacuated. About one-third of those homes initially evacuated remain in the current evacuation zone, the city officials said.
There were structures lost in the fire, but Dingfelder said he did not know how many. Video from the scene of the fire shows several structures burned within the current evacuation zone.
But as of 6 p.m., there were no reports anyone was injured and no missing persons, according to the police chief.
Dingfelder said he expects the current evacuation zone to remain in place for “quite a while” while investigators with the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, Colorado Bureau of Investigation and local officials conduct the investigation into the fire.
Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Deputy Chief Paul Duarte, who is incident commander on the fire after the state was called in to manage resources, said volunteer crews from Monte Vista and across the San Luis Valley were to thank for their quick work to save structures. They utilized a Type 1 helicopter, a multi-mission aircraft, 10 different law enforcement agencies, seven fire departments and five EMS organizations, he said.
#FIRE IN MONTE VISTA 🔥: Videos sent to me over Facebook. A street view from an area nearby as crews continue battling the fire. You can see the smoke & how windy it is. @KOAA— Natalie Chuck KOAA (@NatalieChuck) April 20, 2022
Credit: Shelby Hindes pic.twitter.com/MxDONnWEKK
Duarte told people to be patient while crews work to make sure the evacuation zone is safe for people to return, though some people in the audience for the news conference demanded to be let back to their properties immediately. City officials said they would work with those people on a plan.
Monte Vista Mayor Dale Becker was emotional as he addressed residents in the 6 p.m. news conference to discuss the fire, praising those who helped fight it and saying he never thought he would have a day like this as mayor, calling the fire a “disaster.”
“I didn’t sign up for this. There’s a lot of people here tonight because they can’t get into their homes,” he said. “…I’m sorry we’re here for this. Thank you all for being here, for doing what you’ve done.”
Residents were able to start returning to their homes around 9:00 p.m. Wednesday night.
Law enforcement continued a perimeter around the evacuation zone through the night to keep bystanders out and to allow fire personnel to continue to work on hot zones.
Gigi Dennis, the Monte Vista city manager, said the city and county commissioners were working on an emergency declaration that will allow them to bring in more resources for victims and for the investigation.
She said the Department of Human Services in Del Norte and local food bank were prepared to help. The Red Cross will also come in to assist, and the Monte Vista Community Foundation will be accepting cash donations, Dennis said.
“This is a time we need to hold each other close, be thankful for what we’ve got, and show a lot of love for those who’ve lost something,” she said.
Officials said large animals should be brought to the Sky Hi complex, a new convention and event center in the valley. Smaller animals are being attended to by a local animal shelter. Dingfelder said there were 162 people without power as of 6 p.m. but that it should be restored to most by 11 p.m. Five homes were without gas service.
Marsh Elementary School will likely stay closed on Thursday, a district official said at the news conference.
The city is setting up a shelter at the Nazarene Church, 228 Madison Street, that will be functional on Wednesday night, and the city and county said they had victims advocates and mental health services available.
When residents pressed Dingfelder on returning home, he said officials would do all they could but needed the go-ahead from fire officials before they could do anything.
Calvin Brown, the assistant chief for Monte Vista Fire, said firefighters did not lose water pressure during the fight, and officials said they did not yet know the cause of the fire.
The Monte Vista Police Department, Colorado Bureau of Investigation and fire investigators from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control continue to investigate the origin and cause of the fire and had officers and agents working in the damage zone on Thursday. So far law enforcement says there is no indication that the fire was intentional.
The National Weather Service said fire danger is high Wednesday and Thursday in southern Colorado. A red flag warning is in effect for the Monte Vista area east to Trinidad and north up to Woodland Park.
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