The Missionary Ridge Fire began on June 9, 2002, northeast of Durango in southwest Colorado. It burned until July 15, destroying forty-six houses and cabins and charring 73,000 acres of La Plata County forest. One firefighter died while fighting the blaze, which became the seventh-largest wildfire in Colorado history.
In addition to death and destruction, the Missionary Ridge Fire caused widespread environmental degradation. Durango and its vicinity saw increased flood and mudslide risks in the aftermath. These effects continue to be felt today, nearly two decades after recovery teams began replanting the forest.
2002 Fire Season
The year 2002 was filled with big fires in the American West, brought on by years of sustained drought and fire suppression that resulted in huge buildups of dry fuels. In the spring of 2002, Colorado’s mountain snowpack stood at just 53 percent of its average, and a warm, dry spell in April and May melted away all that moisture before the summer heat arrived in June. In southwest Colorado, La Plata County had received a paltry 1.31 inches of rain since January.
By year’s end, more than 31,000 fires had burned over 3.6 million acres across the American West. Colorado saw 3,067 of those fires burn 926,000 acres, including two of the state’s ten largest fires on record. The day before the Missionary Ridge Fire started, the Hayman Fire was lit by a forest ranger on Colorado’s Front Range. That fire ended up being the largest of the season at 138,000 acres, and was the largest in state history until 2020. Smaller fires broke out across the state as well, including the 400-acre Valley Fire, which destroyed six houses in La Plata County as Missionary Ridge burned just a few miles away.
Topping out at 9,480 feet, Missionary Ridge lies at the southern edge of the San Juan Mountains overlooking the city of Durango to the southwest. The ridge is directly east of US Highway 550 in Hermosa. A county road snakes up the ridge from the highway, and on the hot afternoon of June 9, 2002, a spark landed beside one of its switchbacks and lit the Missionary Ridge Fire. The source of the spark remains unknown.
Fifty firefighters immediately responded to the blaze, but windy conditions caused erratic fire growth that thwarted early attempts to control it. By the end of the first day, the flames had run and skipped across 6,500 acres. Crews focused on evacuating hikers, bikers, and backpackers who were in danger of being trapped by the unpredictable fire.
A Crazed Conflagration
The Missionary Ridge fire grew increasingly erratic over the next few days, thanks to swirling winds and vegetation with the moisture content of kiln-dried firewood. Crew chiefs recall flames more than 250 feet high that were hot enough to burn through aspen—usually not a ready fuel on account of their moisture content. Fire tornadoes, caused by the rapid updraft of extreme heat, whipped debris through the air and overturned abandoned vehicles near Vallecito Reservoir. The fire often doubled back on itself; at one point, flames blew back over a fire wagon, and crews had to quickly douse the vehicle in foam to avoid losing it.
The fire’s unpredictability confounded residents as well as fire crews. On one day, neighbors in the Aspen Trails subdivision east of Missionary Ridge were in the middle of a fire briefing when they were interrupted and told to leave immediately. To the northeast, residents in the Tween Lakes community were given the “all clear” one day—only to have the fire sweep through their area a week later.
More than 2,000 firefighters from at least four states were eventually involved in the Missionary Ridge Fire. They camped in a tent city set up on the athletic fields of Durango High School, while command teams operated out of the La Plata County Fairgrounds. On July 2, firefighter Alan Wayne Wyatt was cutting blackened trees in a burned area when one of them fell on him; he later died of his injuries.
Additional resources were devoted to the Missionary Ridge Fire after the Hayman Fire was fully contained on June 28. Still, dry conditions and consistently high temperatures pushed full containment of the Missionary Ridge blaze to July 15.
The Missionary Ridge Fire was not as destructive as some other fires in 2002, as property losses totaled just over $24 million. It did cost some $37 million to fight, and the Forest Service was estimated to have lost more than $27.8 million in assets, such as recreational areas that were damaged or destroyed.
The fire also heightened the risk of flooding and mudslides in the Durango area, as seasonal monsoon rains doused the burned area in August and September. Without vegetation to absorb it, water sloughed off chunks of hillsides during the storms and washed loads of ash-ridden soil and boulders onto roads. Costs for removing debris and cleaning water-treatment systems (which became clogged with sediment) were not reported, but likely added millions to the indirect costs of the blaze.
In addition to the damage from floods and mudslides, the Missionary Ridge Fire also harmed waterways. Tributaries to the Animas River, the region’s economic and natural lifeblood, were choked with sediment that caused levels of mercury and other toxins to spike.
Recovery teams from Fort Lewis College and the San Juan National Forest began replanting the forest within a year, and as of 2017 they are tracking some 840 tree plots across the burned area. In addition, the Colorado State Forest Service air-dropped grass seed into the burned area and piled fallen tree limbs into retaining walls to prevent sediment from choking up waterways. As ponderosa, spruce, and other pine seedlings slowly reached toward the sky, shorter species such as grasses, aspen, and wildflowers colonized the newly opened landscape, which continues to be a popular hiking destination.
The unpredictable activity of the Missionary Ridge Fire led to the blaze becoming a common case study in fire behavior. In addition, the extreme conditions that preceded the fire are indications of a changing climate that will raise the likelihood of damaging fires. The extreme drought that gripped Colorado in 2002 was not seen again until 2018, though the intervening years were dry enough to spark several catastrophic blazes. Overall, a state report in 2020 found that climate change “would increase expected annual wildfire damages by a factor of 1.6.”
For southwest Colorado, a study by the Colorado Mountain Institute found that by 2050, summers in the region will be as hot as the top 10 percent of summers between 1950 and 1999. The Colorado Forest Atlas’s wildfire risk viewer shows southwest Colorado to be among the most fire-prone regions in the state. These risks are especially important for the city of Durango, which depends on healthy natural areas to support its main economic driver of tourism.
Even though the area was severely burned in 2002, a hotter climate dynamic has produced other fires on Missionary Ridge since then. In 2019 the smaller 441 Fire broke out, and it was quickly converted into a controlled burn to prevent future conflagrations on the scale of the 2002 fire. Still, these smaller fires should remind Coloradans that the right conditions can fan flames anywhere, even in areas that have recently burned.