Firefighters save historic structure, gain containment on grass fires burning in Bent and Otero counties
BENT COUNTY, Colo. (KKTV) - Wednesday brought a lot of wins for firefighters battling a series of grass fires burning across two Colorado counties.
Crews gained significant containment on the two biggest fires burning in Bent and Otero counties and continued to protect homes sitting dangerous close to the flames.
“I’ve still got a place to live,” said Rudy Estrada, whose house was saved by firefighters.
In a huge victory Wednesday afternoon, firefighters were able to save the historic Bent’s Old Fort.
“It would’ve been a huge loss,” said La Junta Fire Chief Brad Davidson. “Right when I got out here and I saw it was heading this way, I told all my staff and my crews, I said, ‘We will protect that building. ‘ And we prevailed, so I feel very fortunate, and very lucky to have the staff that we did.”
In all, officials say five fires broke out amid ferocious wind Tuesday. Three state wildlife areas were impacted, most significantly the Oxbow and Fort Lyon state wildlife areas, which saw 75 percent and 80 percent of its land burned.
Oxbow SWA, 9 miles east of La Junta, was first to burn. Flames engulfed the river bottom and spread, burning 75 percent of its 410 acres. Three sheds were destroyed and several pieces of equipment damaged. Due to extensive tree-fall danger, Oxbow is closed indefinitely. 2/5 pic.twitter.com/ppSFX07Yjw— CPW SE Region (@CPW_SE) April 13, 2022
Fort Lyon SWA suffered extensive damage to 80 percent of its 523 acres including wetlands known as habitat for threatened Eastern Black Rail Habitat. Todd Marriott, CPW wildlife manager, hopes the— CPW SE Region (@CPW_SE) April 13, 2022
wetlands will recover for the marsh-dwelling Black Rail nesting season. 4/5 pic.twitter.com/zAvhlMe6XD
Colorado Parks and Wildlife says all fires on its land are contained and are being monitored for hot spots.
The largest fires in the area, the Bent’s Old Fort Fire and Fort Lyon River Fire, are currently burning on either side of Las Animas and have scorched 1,800 and 2,900 acres respectively.
According to a spokesperson with Bent County Office of Emergency Management, the Bent’s Old Fort Fire sparked near the historic site of the same name Tuesday morning and at one point was considered knocked down until strong winds caused it to flare back up Tuesday evening. As of Friday night, it is considered 92 percent contained. The fire is burning between Las Animas and La Junta.
The Fort Lyon River Fire broke out east of Las Animas later in the day Tuesday and forced the entire town of Fort Lyon to evacuate. All residents were allowed to return home early Wednesday morning. The fire is 87 percent contained as of Friday evening.
Estrada lost several small structures on his property to the Fort Lyon River Fire and said he was certain his home was next.
“The fire was traveling down on the other side of the swamp and then the wind changed ... after I got over here the wind changed and it came directly toward us,” he told reporter Melissa Henry. “And when the railroad cars started on fire, I wanted [firefighters] to put that out, and then I said, ‘Well, that’s no use, it’s a loss,’ so I said, ‘Just save my house,’ and that’s what they did.”
“I just want to thank the fire departments from all over the state that came to help us,” he added as he started to cry.
Over at the Bent’s Old Fort Fire, Chief Davidson described the fight to protect the fort.
“Just down the road down by the sign for Bent’s Fort, it started right there, the winds were blowing east and southeast, and like I said, very strong, they did get into very very heavy vegetation and some trees that I’ve been down there for hundreds of years. And it turned the winds 180 degrees on us and started going towards the building. I did have five fire trucks down there protecting it, our main goal was to protect Bent’s Fort because of the landmark and the history there, and they held their ground and protected the building. It did burn right up to the edge of it in a couple places ... I didn’t wanna lose it, and we were going to throw everything we had at it to protect it.
“... It burned all 360 degrees around the building, the animals were not affected, so the animals are OK. There was a couple oaks, some horses, a couple of cattle, they did what they were supposed to do and got away from the fire.”
Watch dramatic footage by reporter Kasia Kerridge below of a train crossing the tracks as smoke and an orange glow from the Bent’s Old Fort Fire loomed behind (Editor’s note: At the time of the video, we were told the fire was burning in Bent County but that has since been corrected to Otero County):
As of Thursday morning, all roads in the area including Highway 50 are open and there are no current evacuations. Firefighters from across the state continue to pitch in to contain the two fires.
Fire danger remains high for the foreseeable future across southern Colorado.
The causes of the fires remain under investigation.
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