DEL NORTE – Crews defending small homes, a ski area and a handful of roads against an erratic wildfire in Southwest Colorado’s mountains hoped Monday for a break – any break – in the weather that will allow them to launch a more strategic assault on the backcountry blaze.
The West Fork Fire likely will burn for months, said incident commander Pete Blume. And crews are not expecting to make any real gains against the 117-square-mile burn until the summer monsoon season brings cooler temperatures and rains, hopefully in early July.
“This is a significant fire with significant problems, and we are not going to see any significant containment until we have significant changes in the weather,” said Blume, who is with the Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Command.
The fire has forced the closure of U.S. Highway 160 over Wolf Creek Pass since Thursday afternoon, meaning a lengthy detour for those traveling from the Durango area to the San Luis Valley or Front Range cities. There is no timetable for reopening the pass, fire officials said Monday afternoon.
The fire is feeding on beetle-killed trees and is fanned by hot, windy weather. Those conditions were expected to continue across much of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, where a 119-square-mile wildfire in the mountains of Gila National Forest is expected to grow this week.
Some 900 firefighters with a variety of aircraft were in Southwest Colorado, and more were arriving. But so far they have been in an almost completely defensive mode, waiting for the 30- to 40-mile-an-hour afternoon winds – which have grounded aircraft and driven flames – to subside.
The fire’s price tag has topped $22 million, and the effort has just begun.
More than 1,000 residents and visitors left homes, cabins and RV parks in South Fork and surrounding areas Friday. As of Monday, no structures were known to have been lost.
A shelter set up in nearby Del Norte has 78 guests, said Cindi Shank, director of the Southwest Colorado chapter of the American Red Cross.
The fire had moved within 1½ miles of South Fork, said Shank, a Durango resident.
“The wind is absolutely crazy over here today, so it will be interesting to see what happens this afternoon, and we hope nothing,” she said Monday.
The Red Cross expected the shelter to be open at least another five to seven days, Shank said.
Davy Pitcher, owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area, stood atop the ski mountain Monday looking north toward South Fork.
“It just looks terrible over there,” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t think South Fork is imminently threatened, it’s just in the plume again. It probably feels like Armageddon over there, and air quality is probably terrible.”
The Windy Pass Fire, which was within a quarter mile of the ski area, presented little threat as of Monday, Pitcher said. But firefighters remained on scene ready to defend structures, he said.
“We really appreciate that they’re here,” Pitcher said.
Pitcher, who has been allowed to travel up and down Wolf Creek Pass, said flames were visible at one time on Sheep Mountain, on the west side of the pass and northwest on a hairpin turn, but for the most part, it had not moved into the Wolf Creek Pass drainage.
Pitcher guessed the pass would be closed “for a little while longer. There’s still potential for it to come into the pass.”
The blaze began June 5 with a lighting strike in a rugged, remote area of the San Juan Mountains, west of the Continental Divide. It crossed the divide Thursday and made a fast run Thursday afternoon and Friday at popular tourist areas, including South Fork. A second lightning strike sparked the Windy Pass Fire that threatened the ski area.
A third lightning strike, meantime, sparked the Papoose Fire to the northwest, creating what is now called the West Fork Complex Fire, the largest and most intense to ever hit this area, Blume said. That fire was moving north, but was several miles from the historic mining town of Creede. Near the headwaters of the Rio Grande, the town now has a thriving tourist industry that relies on its colorful past.
As of Monday morning, the West Fork Fire was estimated at 52,979 acres, the Windy Pass at 1,244 acres and the Papoose at 20,927 acres. There were 895 personnel battling the fires, as well as 60 engines and six helicopters.
In Creede on Monday, residents and shopping tourists went about business as usual. West of town, on Colorado Highway 149, hills smoldered above homes where firefighters worked to contain the blaze.
Such larger and longer-burning fires are far from unusual in the drought- and beetle-stricken West. The Rio Grande National Forest, for example, had another dry winter. More than half of its hundreds of thousands of acres of mature spruce trees have been killed by beetles, turning the usually fire-resistant trees into tinder, Blume said.
Crews in Colorado also are being challenged by the high altitude, which adds to the danger and complexity of launching air assaults in smoke and high winds, said Larry Trapp, a branch director of air operations with Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Command working the east side of Continental Divide. Wolf Creek Ski Area’s summit is 11,904 feet; South Fork’s elevation is 8,208 feet. Many peaks in the Rio Grande forest surpass 13,000 feet.
Among the air resources on the way, he said, is a helicopter with infrared technology that can fly through the smoke to map power lines above the tree line.
Another red-flag warning, indicating extreme fire danger, will be in effect today with the National Weather Service predicting gusts of up to 50 mph on ridge tops.
Herald Staff Writer Shane Benjamin and Associated Press writer Greg Bull contributed to this report.