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Fire In Big Bend National Park Destroys Historic Sites, Causes Closures

Tom VandenBerg
National Park Service
A wildland fire that first started in Mexico and soon spread to Big Bend National Park has damaged historic sites, inlcuding the Castolon Visitor Center and store.

A fire that started in Mexico and jumped the Rio Grande soon after has ignited fires on the U.S. side of the river in Big Bend National Park, causing damage to historic buildings and forcing site closures throughout the southern pocket of the sprawling West Texas park.

Park officials say the fire has scorched through an estimated 1,280 acres, but it doesn't appear it will spread further.

"Things are looking pretty good," said Big Bend National Park's Acting Superintendent Tom VandenBerg. "There's not a whole lot of concern it's going to spread anymore."

The blaze first began days before as hot embers spread into the park and began burning. One fire crew has since been relieved, but this weekend more than 50 firefighters were on hand, monitoring the fire as temperatures in the park reached the triple digits.

In photos shared online, some damage is visible to the officer quarters in Castolon, which were being used as a residence for park staff. Officials say no park staff or visitors have been injured.

Embers from the fire also landed on the area's historic barracks building, which was home to the Castolon Visitor Center and the new La Harmonia Store. The adobe buildings —first erected nearly 100 years ago to house U.S. Cavalry during the Mexican Revolution— were destroyed.

"Very quickly, a couple of those buildings became engulfed," said Big Bend National Park's Acting Superintendent Tom VandenBerg. "It was a very difficult battle for the firefighters on scene."

VandenBerg said fire crews were able to save a handful of historic adobe structures, including the Alvino House, which he described as the oldest building in Big Bend National Park. Crews working through the night were also able to save the Cottonwood Campground, employee housing, historic rock houses in La Coyota and the original La Harmonia store in Old Castolon.

More than 50 responders are working to contain the fire, including crews from the park, Terlingua, Fort Stockton and Mexico's Los Diablos.

While park officials say they're optimistic the fire will be contained soon, they're continuing to monitor the blaze, as afternoon peak temperatures and low humidity could grow the fire.

While the fire has yet to be contained, it has since shifted away from historic structures, according to VandenBerg . It's now burning along the Rio Grande, through heavy Mesquite thickets.

With the destruction to parts of the Castolon historic district, Big Bend enthusiasts and groups like the Big Bend Conservancy have set up a fundraiser to help cover costs from the fire.

Due to the fire, several areas of the park have been closed off to visitors ahead of the Memorial Day weekend.

But VandenBerg said staff will work to open up scenic routes in the Castolon area.

"We're trying to keep things open as possible, but also keep it safe and to provide access for emergency vehicles, equipment and personnel," said VandenBerg.

The closures include access to the Cottonwood campground. On Sunday, park staff re-opened Old Maverick road, giving visitors access to Santa Elena Canyon.

- Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is partially closed. The route is open through mile 22

- River Road West (From Buenos Aires to Castolon)

Editor's note: This post is updated daily with new information about the fire and closures.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.