CONEJOS CANYON — The Menkhaven Fire was at 65 percent containment as of Thursday. The fire has burned 242 acres.
Conejos County Sheriff Garth Crowther announced Tuesday that the Menkhaven Fire was caused by sparks from a tree dropping on a powerline in the Menkhaven area west of Fox Creek on May 28 at approximately 3:15 pm. Sheriff Crowther stated that the owners of the powerline have cooperated with the investigation from the beginning. The investigation was conducted in cooperation with federal agents and law enforcement officers and remains ongoing.
Sheriff Crowther was grateful for the quick response from within the county and from outside the area.
“They have been putting in nearly 24-hour days working the fire,” Crowther said. “I know they are all exhausted but they just keep going. I’m proud of each and every one of them.”
Crowther explained how the resources came together when the fire was reported at about 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 28, near the Menkhaven subdivision at Milepost 20 on Colorado State Highway 17 between Horca and Fox Creek.
“At the very start of the fire, I started yelling for help,” Crowther said.
Officers from Manassa Police Department, Adams State University police, Colorado State Patrol, US Forest Service law enforcement, and the Alamosa County Sheriff’s Office quickly responded.
The Colorado Department of Transportation closed Highway 17 and roads in the area.
People were evacuated from homes north of Highway 17 between Horca and Fox Creek, although the communities of Fox Creek and Horca were not ordered to evacuate. All residents on the south side of Highway 17 were on pre-evacuation notice.
An evacuation center was established at a church parish hall in Antonito.
Conejos County Emergency Manager Rodney King and Public Information Officer Connie Ricci established an Incident Command Center.
Conejos County Victim Advocate Nadia Flores “called her team into action and was outstanding taking care of the evacuees and first responders,” Crowther said.
The Conejos County Sheriff’s Office began allowing residents that were evacuated back into their homes Monday night.
“I have to talk about the people that were evacuated,” Crowther said. “To have a sheriff’s deputy tell you to evacuate from your home and property is very stressful. Then to be placed in a shelter not knowing the status of your property. I want to thank all those who were evacuated.”
Conejos County Ambulance sent an ambulance that stayed on the scene.
Numerous fire engines from across Conejos County were first on scene Saturday, later joined by equipment and personnel from the Rio Grande National Forest and the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC).
Heavy air tankers, 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 where the blaze originated.
According to Paul Duarte, an incident commander with Colorado DFPC, no structures or other personal property had been lost as of noon Monday.
Monday ground firefighters worked to finish and strengthen the hand lines, especially on the east and west flanks of the steep canyon slopes. At the top, crews continued to 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.
Duarte said about 168 personnel were on scene Monday, including four hotshot crews and various overhead resources. Helicopter assistance originally ordered was grounded due to high winds, according to the forest service.
“Everyone needs to have the opportunity to watch Colorado State Fire Command Devin Haynie and Paul Duarte work. The two of them and their people are amazing,” Crowther said.
Crowther gave a couple of special thanks to the Conejos County Fire Departments, Colorado State Fire, and hotshots and firefighters from the US Forest Service.
“These people are amazing, they have no fear charging right into the fire. Their pilots fly the aircraft into places that are unbelievable,” Crowther said.
Crowther was thankful for the outpouring of support from the community.
“I cannot believe how the citizens of Conejos County and the San Luis Valley respond in times of crisis. The food, snacks, and water were a huge help. A more caring giving people will not be found anywhere on this Earth,” Crowther said.
Colorado Highway 17, west of Antonito, was reopened Tuesday morning to reduced traffic. Delays were expected due to one-lane alternating traffic being escorted by a pilot vehicle, between mile points 19.5 to 21.5, near the fire activity.