By Owen Woods | firstname.lastname@example.org
A fire whipped through Monte Vista around midday Wednesday. It destroyed homes and charred vehicles across 17 acres near downtown, with dozens of families left homeless and without power heading into the end of the week.
“This was a bad day for Monte Vista,” said Mayor Dale Becker during an emotional end-of-day session with community members and local media. Distraught residents peppered city officials with timing on when they could get back into their homes in a neighborhood left devastated.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, including any criminal aspects to it, said Police Chief George Dingfelder.
The six-county San Luis Valley remains under a Red Flag warning for high fire danger due to severe drought conditions.
Monte Vista City Manager Gigi Dennis was among the first to call in the fire when she spotted it on her way to lunch. “I saw this humongous black roll of smoke and then I saw high flames,” she said. “We called right away and the response time was really fast.”
The city is working on an emergency declaration to assist victims and has asked residents to not run their sprinkler systems or water yards until the town is completely free of fire hazards.
An emergency shelter was established Wednesday evening at the Nazarene Church. The Monte Vista Community Foundation and the American Red Cross are assisting with support.
Propane tanks in yards, most of which were smaller tanks, caused some explosions, said Monte Vista Assistant Fire Chief Calvin Brown. Large tanks were in the path of the fire, but efforts were made to ensure that they weren’t compromised.
Aerial view courtesy KMGH-Denver7 News
“There was an opportunity for things to be very bad,” said Deputy State Fire Chief Paul Duarte. He and Dingfelder praised the response of the volunteer firefighters in Monte Vista and rapid backup that came from Alamosa and all the neighboring volunteer firefighters and emergency services teams in the San Luis Valley.
Dingfelder mentioned that once Monte Vista understood that the fire would exceed “our scope of abilities” he immediately requested the Colorado Department of Fire Prevention and Control and that Duarte be made incident commander.
The number of structures lost in the fire wasn’t disclosed due to the nature of the investigation. At least three houses were burned entirely. Helicopter news footage showed vehicles burned and devastation stretching across blocks.
There is no official cause or ignition point yet. These details are still under investigation.
The fire started at around 12:15 p.m. and, with high winds and extreme dry conditions, quickly moved east along West Sickle Street and Acequia Drive.
A reverse 911 was sent out and officers began going door-to-door to begin evacuations. Dingfelder said that some of his officers were caught in between flames and luckily made it out.
“We struggled at times to stay in front of this fire and stay out of the way of it because of the winds and stuff were so strong,” the chief said.
The current evacuation zone is west of Truman Avenue, north of Newcomb Avenue and Acequia Drive and just east of North Washington Street. According to Dingfelder, the zone is a secured area and evacuees, at this time, are unable to enter the area to assess damage.
Dingfelder estimated that 20 to 30 homes were evacuated within the evacuation zone. Initially, he said, there were closer to 100 homes ordered to evacuate. The zone originally was pushed east 6 blocks, but was pushed back after fire officials gave the okay to narrow the zone.
Tyler Chacon, a resident from the evacuation site, said that he and his wife, Rosalee, were unable to pack any clothes or medicine. They were able to take one of their dogs and a cat. They had to leave one dog and are unsure of the state of their property. “They wouldn’t let us go down and look,” he said.
Many residents were told to “just go” with no time to pack anything.
There are currently no reports of injuries or missing persons.
Dingfelder said that they expect the evacuation zone to be closed for “quite a while,” and was unable to give the public a timeframe for residents to return.