UPDATE: Menkhaven Fire grows to 241 acres

Photo courtesy of Rio Grande National Forest

Highway 17 closed from Antonito to New Mexico state line

CONEJOS CANYON — Firefighters benefitted from light rain and higher humidity Sunday night, but officials are keeping a watchful eye on the Menkhaven Fire that broke out about 3 p.m. Saturday, May 28, near this subdivision at Milepost 20 on Colorado State Highway 17 between Horca and Fox Creek. 

According to Gregg Goodland with the Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF), high winds predicted for Monday, May 30, could test fire lines and limit air attacks. 

At last report, the fire had consumed an estimated 241 acres of mixed conifer fuels with brush and aspen, with mandatory and pre-evacuation orders in place north of Highway 17, including the Menkhaven Subdivision and Aspen Glade campground. 

According to Paul Duarte, incident commander with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC), no structures or other personal property had been lost as of noon Monday. He said high winds and cloud cover made it unreasonable to use air attacks on Monday, but ground crews were getting the fire under control. 

Monday’s plan was to have ground firefighters working to finish and strengthen the hand lines, especially on the east and west flanks of the steep canyon slopes. At the top, crews will continue work with dozers to construct and secure both the main fire and spot fires. No fire spread was reported Monday morning, according to an update on Inciweb, the national wildfire tracking site. 

Currently, containment is 0% but depending on Monday’s activities, that may increase to reflect the ground resources successes.   

Heavy airtankers, single engine air tankers and helicopters were in use Saturday and Sunday as firefighting from the ground had been difficult due to the steep canyon the blaze originated in. Highway 17 has been closed since firefighting began, as well as Forest Road 101 at Fox Creek and the forest boundary north of Horca, as well as Road 102. 

Although an official cause of the wildfire has not been determined, radio traffic from the scene indicates it may have been ignited by a downed electrical power line due to “red flag warning” winds across the San Luis Valley. 

Numerous fire engines from across Conejos County were first on scene Saturday, later joined by equipment and personnel from the RGNF and Colorado DFPC. Duarte said about 168 personnel were on scene including four hot shot crews and various overhead resources. Helicopter assistance originally ordered were grounded due to high winds, according to the forest service. 

As of Sunday night, evacuations remained in effect for all homes north of Highway 17 between Horca and Fox Creek, although the communities of Fox Creek and Horca have not been ordered to evacuate. All residents on the south side of Highway 17 are on pre-evacuation notice. 

An evacuation center was established at a church parish hall in Antonito. 

According to a social media post by the RGNF, a reentry plan is being developed for when firefighters determine it’s safe to allow residents back in the area. 

Aerial resources made significant progress Sunday and were able to keep the fire from spreading significantly. Ground resources also made progress with line construction on both flanks of the steep canyon slopes. Monday’s operations continued with completing handlines and securing the perimeter, but aerial resources were expected to be limited due to forecasted high winds. 

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