West Fork Fire Complex now at 70,257 acres

U.S. Highway 160, Colorado Highway 149 remain closed

DENVER (AP) – The West Fork Fire Complex gained ground overnight, growing about 4,000 acres to an estimated 70,257 acres, and continuing its threat to tourist towns on the west edge of Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

The Papoose Fire, now part of the West Fork Fire Complex, increased in size in an area about 15 miles southwest of Creede and south of the Rio Grande River, said Steve Till, a spokesman for the National Incident Management Organization.

Firefighters are setting blazes around cabins that lie in the path of the fire in order to halt the encroaching flames and protect the structures.

“They are trying to keep the fire from crossing (Colorado Highway 149), that will make life easier for the people in Creede and our cabin owners,” Till said Sunday.

U.S. Highway 160 from the chain-up area below Wolf Creek Pass to South Fork is closed. Highway 149 between South Fork and Creede from Mile Marker 1 to Mile Marker 22 also remains closed.

In some places, spruce beetles have killed up to 90 percent of trees, turning sprawling stands of timber into tinder-dry fuel.

On Saturday, the West Fork Fire Complex was fed by chaotic and often-intense winds and was the largest of more than a dozen wildfires around the state.

The ravaging by spruce beetles of thousands of acres of Rio Grande National Forest during the past decade “made it just inevitable that something would set it afire,” Mineral County Commissioner Scott Lamb said.

“This is probably far from over, if the weather doesn’t change,” he said. “Wind is the most important factor in firefighters’ ability to contain the fire.”

Dry, hot weather is expected throughout the state until Thursday when some thunder storms are possible, said Kyle Fredin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder.

“There really isn’t a cloud from here to California,” Fredin said Sunday. “There is little change in the current weather pattern, it favors extreme fire conditions.”

Forest Service-contracted firefighting crews from Montana to the Dakotas approached in equipment-laden vans as shifting winds gusted at speeds up to 40 mph, fanning flames northward toward Creede.

Orange-gray plumes of pine-scented smoke filled the San Luis Valley, and a smaller blaze broke out in the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains about 7 miles south of the Poncha Pass summit.

The edge of the fire was about 1½; miles southwest of South Fork, but has spared the town and nearby Masonic Village along Highway 149.

Federal air tankers and bucket-tugging helicopters targeted flames as best they could, constrained by wind and competition from other wildfires.

Rocky Mountain Incident Command spokeswoman Laura McConnell said it wouldn’t make sense to hold grounded air tankers here if they are needed to douse other wildfires.

“Hopefully we can do things” and slow these wildfires’ movement, U.S. Forest Service information officer Anne Jeffry said Saturday in South Fork. However, the ability to attack big walls of flames directly was limited because of heavy fuel, wind and long-term drought conditions, Jeffry said.

“There’s really nothing we can do when it is roaring and growing in the beetle kill,” she said.

Mayor Kenneth Brooke said at least 1,000 people were evacuated from South Fork, a former timber-mill town where the population around 600 increases with summer visitors. “Right now,” he said, “everything is safe.”

About two dozen residents of Creede fled, escorted by state highway workers, although the northern reaches of the wildfires around Trout Mountain and Metroz Lake were not immediately threatening Creede and no evacuation orders had been given.

The West Fork Complex is made up of three fires: West Fork, Windy Pass and Papoose.

The evacuees from South Fork, after initial stops at a Red Cross post in Del Norte, mostly went to homes of relatives and friends. Rio Grande County Sheriff’s Office deputies escorted those with pressing needs for medications and other concerns in and out of town.

“We know that protecting homes is firefighters’ greatest concern. As long as they stay on that, I’m not too worried about it,” said Colorado State Patrol Trooper Jesse Bartunek, who evacuated his home in South Fork with his wife and children and now was helping coordinate vehicle access into burn zones.

“This fire has been a long time coming with the beetle kill,” Bartunek said. “Forests didn’t used to grow to the point where you have these catastrophic fires. We would have a lot of little fires all the time.

“We’ve got to stop trying to preserve forests. I think we should work the forest. If we’ve got a 40,000-acre area burning because we have had a lot of beetle-killed trees over a decade, maybe should have done something during those years?”

Residents in homes just east of South Fork continued to brace for the possibility of evacuation.

Retiree Harold Utegg mowed weeds along his fence line, just north of the Rio Grande River, as wind surged Saturday morning and the haze thickened.

“I’m taking it down. If there’s any spotting in here, it won’t do anything,” Utegg said. “We’ve trimmed down our trees. And we’ve got a metal roof.”

He and others said they are well aware of wildfire risks and the potential of fuel-laden forests to explode into flames.

“They’ve got a lot of beetle-kill up there and heavy fuel,” Utegg said. “So it’s going to burn hot. We’re used to this.”

But some local leaders are pressing the case for more aggressive Forest Service efforts to allow selective thinning of forests. That’s expensive when done manually, but it can help mimic the natural destructive cycles that are disrupted when more people and development move into the forests.

“We need to thin this dead stuff out,” state Sen. Larry Crowder said, monitoring the situation near the Red Cross station in Del Norte.

“A timber industry can help keep the forest healthy,” he said. Super-intense wildfires such as these may hurt agriculture, which traditionally has been the anchor of the San Luis Valley’s economy, he said.

“Our key concern is our watershed,” he said. “Burned forests can lead to a quicker snowmelt.”

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