Ignacio’s Bear Dance Fire hits close to home 

Additional resources from Durango Fire Protection District and Los Piños Fire Protection assisted on the attack, Friday afternoon, June 3.
Jeremy Wade Shockley | The Southern Ute Drum

Textbook collaboration of resources key to success 

Dry fire fuels, buried amongst thick brush, willows, and aging cottonwood trees proved to be a perfect recipe for a fire that sparked along the Pine River corridor, northeast for Ignacio and adjacent to Southern Ute tribal campus, Friday, June 3. Carried upstream by strong winds and midday heat, the Bear Dance Fire consumed 89 acres along the Pine River, just east of SunUte Park. The BIA, Southern Ute Agency, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and Los Piños Fire crews were onsite almost immediately due to the proximity of the fire. Regional air support was enroute shortly thereafter to assist in the suppression efforts early in the afternoon, helping to confine the fire along the river corridor, preventing unwanted spread to residential neighborhoods and heavily forested areas to the north.  

“The Tribe has anticipated the current fire season, and the proactive efforts of the BIA, Southern Ute Agency Fire Management Office and various local resources paid off as the Bear Dance Fire started,” Southern Ute Chairman Melvin Baker stated. “I truly believe the excellent response of firefighters and air resources is why the fire was contained at 89 acres.” 

Due to the proximity to the Southern Ute Tribal Campus and residents, evacuations of Tribal Campus and pre-evacuations of the surrounding area were ordered Friday afternoon, which included a closure of Sky Ute Casino Resort. Power was cut off to the surrounding area for the safety of firefighters on the ground, where LPEA powerlines had been directly affected by the intense flames burning west of the river. 

Bureau of Indian Affairs, Southern Ute Agency Fire Management called in a BIA led Type-3 Team to respond as well as two local Hot Shot crews and several other entities. The Tribe assisted with a tribally owned engine and Southern Ute Range Divion’s water tender. Additional resources from Durango Fire Protection District and Los Piños Fire Protection assisted on the attack. Aviation resources were immediately called in at the start of the fire, which included multiple helicopters, single engine air tankers or SEATs, and a large, fixed wing air tanker. No structures were lost during the multi-day suppression effort. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.  

“We were pleased with the outcome; this is a highly visible fire to the public. But we do this several times a year throughout the reservation,” BIA Southern Ute Agency, Fire Management Officer, Rich Gustafson stated. “The different part was how close it was to infrastructure, power lines … we really appreciate the collaboration with the Tribe and the patience of the public. What a lot of people don’t know, is that we are out there doing that all summer long on fires that are not as visible.” 

Howard Richards Jr., Assistant Fire Management Officer for the BIA Southern Ute Agency, served as the Incident Commander Trainee for the Bear Dance Fire, while BIA Southern Ute Agency, Fire Management Officer, Rich Gustafson served as Incident Commander. Staging of the incident command post and crew campground was set up at SunUte park. Shower facilities were provided by the SunUte Community Center for visiting fire crews. 

“On behalf of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and our tribal membership, I would like to thank the multiple fire crews who immediately acted on our call for assistance with the Bear Dance Fire,” Chairman Baker emphasized. “Through your efforts, the fire was quickly contained without structure loss and injury. Tuuvuch Toghoyaqh for Mr. Richard Gustafson, Mr. Howards Richards, Jr., and Mr. John Gilbert for your excellent lead of fire operations. Thank you to the three hot shot crews and local fire crews who brought top notch fire skills to stop the fire and mitigate the area for future recreational use. We are eternally grateful for your professionalism and skills.” 

The Bear Dance Fire was extinguished and 100% contained as of Tuesday, June 7.   

As a reminder, Stage II fire restrictions were enacted for Southern Ute Indian Reservation on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, and will remain in effect until conditions improve. Fuels remain critically dry due to the mega drought conditions. 

 Crews will remain in the area to work on the phased reopening of the popular recreational areas, according to a press release from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, “At this time the areas remain closed,” communication specialist Lindsay Box stated “As areas are deemed safe for use, announcements will be posted to the tribal website and social media. Please stay away from the area while crews continue to work on the reopening.” 

“We are starting the planning process for reopening that area [to the public], what we call the BAER (Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation) plan,” Gustafson said. “Which includes looking at noxious weeds, hazardous trees, and improving recreation areas.” 

“The current mega drought conditions on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation poses a severe threat to the natural resources the reservation has to offer,” Baker emphasized. Everyone on reservation land is asked to be very cautious and use common sense with fire this time of year.   

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