Gentler winds help fight

Blaze now is nation’s highest wildfire priority


Firefighters battle the Papoose Fire 15 miles southwest of Creede off Colorado Highway 149 on Tuesday afternoon. Of the three fires in the West Fork Complex, the Papoose Fire worries firefighting officials the most because it has the potential to harm waterways and reservoirs. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Firefighters battle the Papoose Fire 15 miles southwest of Creede off Colorado Highway 149 on Tuesday afternoon. Of the three fires in the West Fork Complex, the Papoose Fire worries firefighting officials the most because it has the potential to harm waterways and reservoirs.

DEL NORTE – Fire officials on both sides of the Continental Divide discussed whether they could reopen Wolf Creek Pass – even with limited access – but no decision had been reached by Tuesday night.

“(We) are looking to see if there are ways we can open it up,” said Pete Blume, an incident commander in Del Norte. “We may find a way we can manage traffic through at certain times of the day under certain pilot-car conditions.

“We know how important it is, not just to the community but really the whole state, to have (U.S. Highway) 160 open, so we’re going to do what we can,” he said.

Meanwhile, weather conditions improved Tuesday, making it the first day in six that a “red-flag warning” wasn’t issued. Red-flag warnings are issued on dry, hot, windy days.

“I guess we can count our blessings every time we have the wind drop a little bit,” Blume said.

Three wildfires were threatening the town of South Fork, several homes outside Creede and Wolf Creek Ski Area.

The West Fork Fire, which began June 5 after a lightning strike west of the Continental Divide, was estimated at 54,222 acres, the Papoose Fire at 23,605 acres, and the Windy Pass Fire at 1,355 acres.

The West Fork Complex, as it’s called, has the highest priority in the nation, Blume said. That makes it easier to amass resources, he said, but fire conditions are so severe that even if he ordered everything at the federal government’s disposal, it still would not be possible to squelch the fire within a week.

Instead, the fire is likely to burn for months, possibly until snow falls this winter, Blume said.

Total personnel battling the complex was up to 1,313 Tuesday. That includes 37 hand crews, 68 engines and 11 helicopters.

The town of South Fork, with a full-time population of about 400 and many more summer vacationers, has been evacuated since Friday morning.

About 70 residents, including those in recreational vehicles, have been staying at a Red Cross shelter at the high school in nearby Del Norte.

Summer visitors Paula Gee and Marvin Bransom, brother and sister, said they hoped to return to South Fork and remain there for the summer.

“We’re just kind of chilling for another three days, and then we’ll make a decision” about whether to go home, Paula Gee said.

Some residents have been allowed to return home briefly to retrieve medications and other personal belongings with an escort from the Rio Grande County Sheriff’s Office.

“I’m trying to get residents back into South Fork,” said Sheriff Brian Norton. “It’s going to be a long-term fire, but hopefully it’s not going to be a long-term evacuation.”

About 350 people attended a community meeting Tuesday afternoon in Creede, where thick smoke from the Papoose Fire has blanketed the historic mining town for three days. Mike Broughton, air quality adviser for the fire complex, said Creede has been more affected by smoke than any other community in Colorado.

He planned to install an air quality-monitoring system as soon as Thursday morning. Residents don’t need it to know there is smoke in the air, he said; rather, it will detect how much smoke is in the air and if it is reaching dangerous levels.

Residents likely will be dealing with some level of smoke for the rest of the summer – or at least until the next major rain or snow event, Blume said.

But at least residents in Creede won’t need to worry about evacuations. The town has considerable defensible space – wide-open meadows with little vegetation – making it a relatively safe place, said Russ Long, operations section chief for the fire.

“This is a safety zone,” Long said at the meeting. “You have a very safe town.”

Mineral County Sheriff Fred Hosselkus seemed to agree, saying there are no plans to evacuate.

“We’re pretty well mitigated around here to where I don’t see that happening,” he said at the town meeting.

Part-time Creede resident Ron Kemper said smoke is worst in the morning. He tries to limit his exposure outside and spend the rest of the day indoors with a humidifier.

“They say it could last up to three months,” he said. “It’s the worst they’ve ever seen the Rio Grande forest.”

The U.S. Forest Service already has set up an air quality-monitoring station in Del Norte to make sure conditions don’t reach dangerous levels. Residents concerned about smoke were advised to leave town, if possible, close windows at night, reduce physical activity and drink plenty of water.

The fires have blackened thousands of acres popular among outdoor enthusiasts, including fishermen, backpackers and ATVers. But it is a natural component of the environment, and it won’t take long for the charred landscape to green up, said Adam Mendonca, with Rio Grande National Forest.

In areas where the fire burned hottest, trees will fall across popular roads and trails, including the Continental Divide, Mendonca said. Once the monsoons arrive, mudslides likely will wipe out some trails and roads, he said.

Fire officials focused much of their attention on the Papoose Fire, which had the potential to deposit large amounts of ash into waterways and reservoirs, compromising water quality.

“The Papoose has a lot of focus right now,” Mendonca said. “Up there around that Papoose area, we’ve got a lot of valuable risks, and a lot of them do consist of structures.”

He added: “South Fork is still a major concern.”

Firefighters planned to do controlled burns near a reservoir and parts of Wolf Creek Pass in an effort to reduce fuels before the fire reaches those locations, thereby reducing the intensity of the fires as they approach those areas, Blume said.

“It is an action to hopefully make things better,” he said.

The fire had come within three or four miles of South Fork, Blume said. Firefighters built a bulldozer line about 1½ miles from the town to protect it. It was a single blade – 10 to 12 feet thick – and firefighters planned to widen it during the next few days.

With cooler temperatures and less wind, fire officials hoped to rely more on air support this week.

The public has been allowed to drive on Colorado Highway 149 between South Fork and Creede, but only once every hour by following a pilot car. It is possible something similar will be allowed for motorists on Wolf Creek Pass, but it will be even more restrictive, Blume said.

The West Fork Fire was burning parallel to U.S. Highway 160, he said.

shane@durangoherald.com

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