DEL NORTE (AP) – Tourists and business owners forced to flee a popular summer retreat in the southwestern Colorado mountains resigned themselves to a long wait as fire officials declined to speculate when they might be able to rein in an unprecedented and erratic blaze raging through the Rio Grande National Forest.
The fire more than doubled in size over the weekend, growing to an estimated 117 square miles. Incident commander Pete Blume said Monday that firefighters would need a major change in the weather, such as the arrival of heavy rain from the summer monsoon season, to check the fire burning in drought-stricken, beetle-killed forest near South Fork.
“It’s a significant fire with significant problems, and it’s not going to be significantly contained until we see significant changes in the weather,” said Blume, a commander with the Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Command Team.
Afternoon thunderstorms producing rain typcially develop in the state in July.
The fire has been fueled by beetle-killed trees and fanned by hot, windy weather. More of those conditions were expected Monday there and across much of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. A nearly 119-square-mile wildfire burning in the mountains of southern New Mexico’s Gila National Forest is expected to grow larger this week because of the conditions.
In Colorado, firefighters were able to start building about 2 miles of bulldozer line near South Fork on Sunday because the fire didn’t grow much. A break in the wind was expected Tuesday at the fire near South Fork but Blume said that wouldn’t be enough to help stop the fire. Still, he said every day the fire doesn’t advance toward town is a good day.
“Things are looking better but are no means secure,” he said of South Fork.
Mike and Mary Duffy, who own the South Fork Lodge, were able to get their personal possessions before fleeing fast-advancing flames that officials on Friday feared would overtake the town. But with the fire still within three miles of South Fork, they are worried about the long-term impact of a prolonged evacuation and news reports about the massive blaze threatening the tourism-dependent town.
Summer visitors include many retirees from Texas and Oklahoma who come to the mountains to flee the heat.
“Here we are the 23rd of June. We had to tell people not to come because we are not there,” Duffy said. “I just don’t how much more of an affect it will have. Everyone’s bottom line is going to get tagged by this. ... You still have to pay your property taxes whether you make money or not.”
The town has 400 permanent residents, but South Fork Mayor Kenneth Brooke estimates that between 1,000 to 1,500 people were in town when the evacuation was ordered. More than 800 firefighters were battling the blaze, and more are coming every day.
No structures have been lost and firefighting efforts remained focused on protecting South Fork, the Wolf Creek ski area and homes along Highway 149 as the newest arm of the fire crept through beetle kill toward the historic mining town of Creede.
Creede, near the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, was the last silver boom town in Colorado before the industry went bust in the late 1800s. It has since dwindled in population, making way for a thriving tourist industry that relies on the town’s colorful past. The town also is known for such characters as Robert Ford, who ran a tent saloon there and was best known for shooting and killing outlaw Jesse James in Missouri in 1882.
Tim Foley, a fire behavior expert with the same incident command as Blume, said beetles have killed most of the forest’s hundreds of thousands of acres of mature spruce.
Elsewhere in Colorado, about a dozen fires also continued to burn. Cooler conditions and clouds helped firefighters hold the line on a 20-square-mile wildfire near Walsenburg in southern Colorado.