DEL NORTE – A massive wildfire threatening a tourist region in Southwest Colorado has grown to nearly 60 square miles, but officials said Saturday that the erratic blaze had slowed and they were optimistic they could protect the town of South Fork.
The West Fork Fire Complex, which includes the West Fork, Papoose and Windy Pass fires, had grown to close to 66,200 acres Saturday evening, said fire spokeswoman Penny Bertram. High winds Saturday fanned the flames, but the converging wildfires had not moved north of Highway 149.
Firefighters spent much of Saturday trying to protect structures. Large air tankers fought the fire but were periodically grounded because of high winds.
The fires' rapid advance prompted the evacuation of hundreds of summer visitors and South Fork's 400 permanent residents Friday, and it could be days before people are allowed back into their homes, cabins and RV parks, fire spokeswoman Laura McConnell said. South Fork Mayor Kenneth Brooke estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 people were forced to flee.
Some business owners were being allowed back into South Fork during the day Saturday to tie up issues left unattended in the rush to leave.
Officials, meanwhile, closely monitored an arm of the blaze – the Papoose Fire – moving toward the neighboring town of Creede.
“We were very, very lucky,” said Rio Grande County Commissioner Carla Shriver. “We got a free pass yesterday.”
The town of Creede's 300 residents were under voluntary evacuation orders as officials feared the fire could reach the roads leading out of town. However, residents of Fern Creek Homes outside Creede were evacuated early Saturday morning, Bertram said.
McConnell said no structures had been lost and the fire was still about five miles from the town.
The blaze had been fueled by dry, hot, windy weather and a stand of dead trees, killed by a beetle infestation. But the fire's spread had slowed by Saturday morning after the flames hit a healthy section of forest. Fire crews remained alert as more hot, dry and windy weather was forecast.
The wildfire remains a danger, officials said.
“The fire is very unpredictable,” Shriver told evacuees at Del Norte High School, east of the fire. “They are saying they haven't quite seen one like this in years. There is so much fuel up there.”
Winds picked up Saturday afternoon and heavy black smoke again permeated the air in Del Norte, where a Red Cross shelter was set up for evacuees. Anticipating the mandatory South Fork evacuation would last for days, the Red Cross promised more supplies and portable showers.
Ralph and Leilani Harden of Victoria, Texas, spend summers in South Fork.
“We jumped out of the South Texas hot box into the Colorado frying pan,” Ralph Harden said.
Bob and Sherry Mason bought the Wolf Creek Ski Lodge on the western edge of South Fork about a year and a half ago.
“This (wildfire) was in our contingency plan being in Colorado, but we didn't expect it this soon,” Bob Mason said.
New fire crews, meanwhile, descended from other areas to join more than 32 fire engines stationed around South Fork, with hoses and tankers at the ready. Firefighters also worked to move potential fuel, such as lawn furniture, propane tanks and wood piles, away from homes and buildings.
The smoke, broken up only by an orange glow over the outlines of the San Juan mountains, was so thick Friday that the plume helped keep an 18-square-mile wildfire burning 100 miles to the east near Walsenburg from spreading as fast as it would have otherwise.
“Fire conditions are prime with the combination of fuels, heat, winds and low humidity,” said fire information officer Mike Stearly of the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, “It's expected to be like this through next Tuesday.”