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Crews focus on homes

SHANE BENJAMIN/Durango Herald

The eastern flank of the Papoose Fire is seen Wednesday afternoon from Colorado Highway 149. As of Wednesday morning, it had burned 25,236 acres.

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

DEL NORTE – Favorable weather conditions Wednesday allowed firefighters to improve protection around houses and subdivisions that are threatened by the West Fork Complex, which has reached 81,331 acres.

No structures have been lost.

U.S. Highway 160 over Wolf Creek Pass remained closed for the seventh consecutive day despite some talk from fire officials that it might reopen in a limited capacity to the public.

Businesses on both sides of the pass are pushing to get the pass open, but fire officials and county sheriffs have to balance those concerns with public safety, said Pete Blume, a West Fork Complex incident commander.

“That’s one of the considerations out there,” Blume said of the economic interests.

The West Fork Complex consists of three fires. The West Fork Fire, started by lightning June 5, is the biggest at 54,714 acres. The goal for that fire was to improve a bulldozer line about 1½ miles from the town of South Fork, which has been evacuated since Friday.

The Papoose Fire, at 25,236 acres, is causing the greatest concern because of its potential to harm waterways and reservoirs with ash from the fire.

The Windy Pass Fire, near Wolf Creek Ski Area, was at 1,381 acres.

There was no containment on any of the fires Wednesday night.

“This isn’t one of those fires that lends itself to that,” Blume said.

Helicopters and hot-shot crews worked Wednesday to slow the advance of the Papoose Fire’s northwestern flank, where several homes and subdivisions are located.

Scott Arthur, a firefighter from Snowmass Village, watched as fire sprinted 1,000 feet up a mountainside in 30 seconds, producing 400-foot-tall flames.

“Every day in the afternoon, we usually get a big blow-up,” he said. “It’s rockin’ and rollin’.”

Helicopters dropped buckets of water at the top of a ridge in hopes of stopping the fire’s advance down the backside into a subdivision. Firefighters also did what is called a back-burn Tuesday night, in which they set fire to a hillside to remove fuels.

“The overwhelming majority of work being done is structure protection,” Arthur said.

Often, firefighters can set a perimeter and try to contain it. Not on this one. The terrain is too steep, and the fuels are too combustible. So firefighters have to look for natural fire breaks – for example, areas where vegetation simply runs out. They can use air resources to help guide the fire to those locations.

The West Fork Fire was burning parallel to Highway 160, but it hadn’t reached the highway as of Wednesday. Fire officials don’t want to send firefighters to the fire’s edge because of rugged terrain and dry fuels. They were discussing whether to set a controlled burn from Highway 160 toward the fire, Blume said.

But doing so is tricky. If the controlled burn gets too hot, it could get out of control. Likewise, fire officials don’t want the fire to make a hard advance on Highway 160 because then it could cross the road.

“I kind of like the idea of having it on (Highway 160) because then we’ve got some pretty hard control lines,” Blume said. “It’s kind of a nice situation, because then I don’t have to put firefighters out in the dead spruce and expose them to that.

“We don’t want the fire hitting the highway hard because the fire will go over it,” he said.

Light wind and cooler temperatures have slowed the growth of the fires. They haven’t put up massive columns of smoke since Monday.

The fires have consumed thousands of acres of beetle-killed spruce trees. They likely will smolder for months without a significant rain. The blackened landscape will be a change, but it won’t take long for new life to take root, said Mark De Gregorio, a fire information officer.

“The good news is, in three or four years, it’s going to be all aspen up in there,” he said. “It’s going to be beautiful.”

Blume said a lot of people want to know what they can do to help firefighters. Baked treats are nice, he said, but the biggest thing residents can do is create defensible space around their homes.

Blume said homeowners who do not thin vegetation or clear space basically are asking firefighters to risk their lives because they’ve left their homes in an indefensible condition.

“We’re having to do things that could have been done in advance.”

shane@durangoherald.com

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