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As fire nears, South Fork evacuates

Ed Andrieski/Associated Press

A firefighter monitors the West Fork Fire near South Fork on Friday evening. Firefighters from nearby communities were prepared to protect structures in the town of nearly 400.

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

A massive wildfire burning northeast of Pagosa Springs forced the evacuation of South Fork and kept Wolf Creek Pass closed for a second day Friday.

The West Fork Fire was more than 30,000 acres in size and seven miles from South Fork, according to official reports Friday morning. No updates were available as of 6 p.m.

Firefighters from surrounding communities were prepared to protect structures in South Fork, said Steve Till, a fire information officer. He said 30 engines and several foot crews were prepared to do what they can.

“It’s not as if it’s just left swinging in the wind,” he said.

The fire, started June 5 by lightning, was burning through beetle-killed spruce parallel to U.S. Highway 160 over Wolf Creek Pass. It had come within a half mile of the highway in some locations, Till said.

A health advisory was issued Friday evening for residents in Archuleta County because of the degraded air quality from smoke.

The chances of Wolf Creek Pass opening this weekend were “pretty low,” Till said.

“With that big of a fire, that much fuel, it’s much too dangerous to allow people to drive through there,” he said. “We understand it’s hard on the economy, but public safety comes first, and there’s no safe way to allow the public through there. It’s tenuous at times to firefighters.”

An 18-mile stretch of Wolf Creek Pass was closed about 2:30 p.m. Thursday. Also, Colorado Highway 149 was closed between South Fork and Creede.

The fire more than doubled in size – from 12,000 acres to 29,900 acres – and jumped the Continental Divide on Thursday. It advanced seven miles in a northeasterly direction, toward the town of South Fork.

It was fueled Friday by hot temperatures, low humidity, strong winds and bone-dry trees. Weather conditions were expected to be similar through the weekend.

“The fire weather guy is saying if you liked (Thursday and Friday), it’s going to be pretty much the same (today) – dry, windy, hot,” Till said.

Large air tankers were called in for the first time Friday to assist, but they were grounded mid-afternoon because of strong wind gusts.

A second incident command team was called in to manage the fire on the east side of Wolf Creek Pass, Till said. It is not uncommon to have multiple command teams on a large fire that spreads in different directions, he said. The Hayman Fire in 2002 had three command teams, he said.

Meanwhile, the Windy Pass Fire south of Wolf Creek Ski Area was less active Friday.

“It’s looking rather calm today (Friday), calmer than the West Fork Fire, to say the least,” said Penny Bertram, another fire information officer.

Firefighters were prepared to protect structures at the ski area, including at the tops of lifts and about a dozen structures near the base area.

A third major fire blew up Thursday in Southwest Colorado. The Papoose Fire is burning in the Papoose and Little Squaw drainages just downstream of the Rio Grande Reservoir west of Creede.

The Papoose Fire was estimated at 1,600 acres Friday morning. A huge plume of smoke – looking like a fluffy cumulus cloud – hung on the distance horizon Friday northeast of Durango.

The Stony Pass Road (Forest Service 520) was closed from Colorado Highway 149 to the Animas River near Silverton because of threats from the fire.

With the closures of highways 160 and 149, these alternate routes were recommended:

Alternate route over Wolf Creek between Alamosa and Pagosa Springs: U.S. 285 to Colorado Highway 17 (Cumbres/La Manga passes) to U.S. 84 to Pagosa Springs.

Alternate route between Saguache and Durango: Colorado Highway 114 to U.S. 50 to U.S. 550.


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