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West Fork Fires grows to 42,516 acres

GREGORY BULL/Associated Press

Smoke fills the sky as dawn breaks over a mountain range near South Fork on Saturday. Fire crews with tankers and hoses stood guard Friday night as a massive and fast-burning wildfire threatened a popular mountain tourist town, forcing the evacuation of more than 400 people.

Associated Press
and Herald Staff Report

DEL NORTE – A massive wildfire threatening a tourist region in southwestern 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 fire’s rapid advance prompted more than 400 evacuations Friday, and it could be days before people are allowed back into their homes, cabins and RV parks, fire crew spokeswoman Laura McConnell said.

Fire officials issued a red flag warning for the fourth consecutive day, indicating weather conditions are ideal for rapid fire to spread and for any new fires to start.

Officials, meanwhile, closely monitored an arm of the blaze 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.”

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, a complex of three blazes, 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.”

Smoke permeated the air Saturday 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.

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 town of Creede’s 300 residents were under voluntary evacuation orders.

U.S. Highway 160 between South Fork and Treasure Falls remains closed. Highway 149 between South Fork and Creede from Mile Marker 1 to Mile Marker 22 also remains closed.

With the closures of highways 160 and 149, these alternate routes are 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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