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Blaze erupts to the west of Breen

Hon Schlapfer/U.S. Forest Service

This plume of smoke is coming from the West Fork Fire about 6 p.m. Sunday. The U.S. Forest Service took the photo from an aerial vehicle about 20,000 feet above the fire, which is burning northeast of Pagosa Springs. This part of the blaze is in the Beaver Creek drainage.

By Robert Galin Herald staff writer

Sunday’s winds pushed the West Fork Fire into the an area around Elk Creek after the fire grew from 471 acres to 1,700 acres as measured late Saturday from the air.

Another flight, with infrared measuring devices, was scheduled for late Sunday to further measure the size of the West Fork and Windy Pass fires, burning northeast of Pagosa Springs.

The West Fork and Windy Pass fires saw significant growth through the night Saturday and into Sunday as red-flag conditions and thunder cells moved over the area.

In addition, a fire, dubbed the Lewis Mesa Fire, broke out Sunday on Ute Mountain Ute land near the Montezuma County-La Plata County line, said Pam Wilson, public information officer for the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch. Wilson was providing information about several fires currently burning in Southwest Colorado.

The new fire, the Lewis Mesa Fire, off County Road 114, was estimated at 10 acres and 45 percent containment around 9 p.m. Sunday. It was being hit by drops from two single-engine air tankers, Wilson said.

The much larger West Fork and Windy Pass fires showed moderate growth Sunday as thunderstorms failed to produce significant precipitation. Rainfall in the area was less than a tenth of an inch, according to the National Weather Service.

In an earlier news release, Wilson said Saturday night’s infrared flight confirmed a significant increase in acreage on the West Fork and Windy Pass fires.

As of Sunday evening, the West Fork and Windy Pass fires were treated together as the West Fork Complex, and some fire-fighting resource are shared between the two blazes.

Currently, 143 people are fighting the West Fork Complex blazes, Wilson said.

On Sunday, Wilson said the West Fork Fire showed little growth on the northwest side, up the West Fork drainage. The south flank was holding as well, and helicopters monitored the south flank, using water drops to hit spot fires. Firefighters also protected a foot bridge north of a trailhead toward the West Fork of the San Juan River.

Wilson said the Windy Pass Fire showed little growth Sunday, with most growth on the northwest flank.

Both Falls Creek and Wolf Creek roads south of U.S. Highway 160 were closed Sunday in anticipation of fire growth in the West Fork Complex.

The fires sent smoke into Pagosa Springs. The state health department says smoke could move into South Fork, Del Norte, Saguache and the Rio Grande National Forest through this evening. It says the very young, the elderly and those with respiratory illnesses should stay indoors if moderate to heavy smoke develops.

The National Weather Service predicts today’s weather to include spotty afternoon thunderstorms and wind speeds of 5 to 10 mph. Rainfall is expected to be minimal – at less than a tenth of inch, except in the midst of the thunderstorms.

A National Incident Management Team Organization, or a NIMO team, has been ordered with a Type 2 configuration, Wilson said in a news release issued Sunday. NIMO members began arriving Sunday afternoon, with a transition to the NIMO team on Tuesday, she said.

No injuries have been reported by firefighters, but one firefighter from California was sent home after a bad reaction to an allergy medication, Wilson said. Crews from California, Montana and local agencies are fighting the blazes, Wilson said.

In the phone interview, Wilson said the firefighting teams are not actively suppressing the wilderness fire for several reasons. Much of the area is rugged, steep terrain with “a ton of beetle-killed spruce,” which makes on-the-ground firefighting dangerous for firefighters.

Late Saturday, the West Fork Fire has moved farther north and expanded both the east and west. It has crossed over the West Fork River near Beaver Creek, Wilson said. Firefighters made good progress with their structure protection efforts near Borns Lake, and they continued working on structure protection Sunday, Wilson said. Helicopters with water-dropping capabilities worked today to attack any spot fires along the southern flank.

Wilson said more information on smoke impacts can be found on the state website, www.colorado.gov/airquality/wildfire.aspx.

A Type 2 helicopter, which can carry 300 gallons of retardant or water, made water drops Saturday to help control the spread of the Windy Pass Fire, Wilson said.

The West Fork Trail remains closed up to Piedra Pass for public and firefighter safety, Wilson said. Forest Service campgrounds at West Fork and East Fork are both open, as are the private campgrounds in the West Fork area, Wilson said.

Closer to Durango, on Missionary Ridge, the half-acre Red Creek Fire was called 100 percent contained at 6:20 p.m. Saturday. This fire was in the old Missionary Ridge Fire burn area, Wilson said.

Firefighters stayed on scene Saturday night and the flames did not flare up despite some strong winds. Crews continued mopping up Sunday and will make water drops today, as needed, Wilson said.

Wilson also said maps and photos of the West Fork and Windy Pass fires are posted on the Archuleta County Emergency information site, www.acemergency.org

Herald Staff Writer Patrick Armijo contributed to this report. rgalin@durangoherald.com

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