On ‘Pivotal Day’ For Decker Fire, Several Colorado Towns Await Word On Evacuation

The Decker Fire burns near Salida, Colo.
Chaffee County Fire Department / Facebook
The Decker Fire burns near Salida, Colo.

Although the Decker Fire was less active near Salida on Friday, crews were gearing up for a “pivotal day” in the fire on Saturday, officials said. 

An air resource adviser working on the fire’s incident command team predicted that increased fire activity between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. would produce large amounts of smoke. Howard, Wellsville, Coaldale, Cotopaxi, Texas Creek and Canon City are expected to see smoke and may have moderate to unhealthy air quality.

The fire has burned just under 6,000 acres and is 5 percent contained. Close to 800 people are working on the fire.

Forty mph wind gusts were expected Saturday combined with low humidity -- conditions that would make it a difficult day for fire crews.

About 300 residents in Chaffee County face mandatory evacuations.

One cabin on Methodist Mountain has been destroyed by the fire.

At a meeting at the Steam Plant Theater in Salida on Saturday morning, Chaffee County Sheriff John Spezze said that depending on how the fire activity plays out, officials will reassess the evacuations to try to get people back in their homes.

The southern Colorado towns of Pine Ridge, Wellsville and Swissvale and Howard were under pre-evacuation. Anxious residents from those communities had many questions Friday night at a meeting in Howard. 

Hayley Sanchez, CPR News
Residents of Fremont County gather at a meeting in Howard, where officials working on the Decker Fire gave updates on the fire on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019.

"It’s what everyone is talking about it right now,” said Debbie Shoeman, who lives in Howard during the summer and fall. “It's kind of hard to get away from it."

Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper urged people to be prepared to evacuate in case the fire takes a turn for the worse. He said officials want to be sure residents have plenty of time to move their livestock.

“If we get into an evacuation plan, that is not the time to move your stock,” he said. “The time to move your stock is now.”

He said he lived through the Hayden Fire in 2016 and seeing smoke and flames on the mountain again worried him.

The Colorado Department of Transportation asked people not to park along the side of highways to look at the fire. The speed limit on Highways 50 and 285 has also been reduced for safety. 

“When we have vehicles stopped on the side of the road and people getting out of their cars, it is creating a hazard for other passing vehicles,” said Tyler Carlson, a maintenance supervisor with CDOT. “The highways must be kept clear with no obstructions for fire and emergency personnel and equipment moving about in the area.”    

The community has been very supportive, Spezze said. 

“The community has been so good about offering housing and other facilites and services that people have been able to find a place to stay,” he said. “We really appreciate everything the county has done or the residents in the county have done. It’s a pretty amazing thing.”

Staff at Salida Hotel off Highway 50 said business has been busier than usual, with some evacuees and firefighters staying there. Other evacuees have found places to stay with other residents.

On Saturday Keith Wilken shopped for groceries in Salida with his wife. He says his home is near those who have already been evacuated. He said that buying food would help him be prepared in case they need to go, too.

“Here it just seems like everybody found space with their neighbors, friends, family. So it is a real close-knit community that takes care of each other,” Wilken said.

Throughout Salida and on Highway 50 outside of town, fire engines could be seen frequently on the road.

Information about the fire and messages thanking firefighters are posted in local restaurants, businesses and even car windows. “THANK YOU DECKER FIREFIGHTERS,” one flyer read.