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Fires rage; South Fork evacuation may be long

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Colorado State Patrol Trooper Jessie Bartunek updates a motorist on road closures at a checkpoint near South Fork on Sunday. A large wildfire near the popular summer retreat in southern Colorado continues to be driven by winds and fueled by beetle-killed trees in a drought-stricken area.

Associated Press

DEL NORTE – One finger of a tri-headed wildfire complex near South Fork, a popular summer retreat in southern Colorado, continues to be driven by winds and fueled by dead trees in a drought-stricken area, authorities said Sunday.

The weather has prevented fire crews from making progress on the blaze, which grew overnight to 108 square miles on Sunday, up from 100 on Saturday. The speed with which the fire has spread is exceptional: It was just below 50 square miles Friday evening.

No structures have been lost in the fire, and no injuries have been reported.

As the three fires that make up the West Fork Fire Complex near the towns of South Fork and Creede grow, so has the complexity of managing them, and control has now been split into two zones, one on each side of the Continental Divide.

“We have zero containment,” fire information officer Penny Bertram told The Durango Herald. “We’re not even close to containment.”

Bertram said the Papoose Fire near Creede has been the most active. It has consumed some 19,214 acres at last count Sunday afternoon, and it still threatens Creede.

The Windy Pass Fire near Wolf Creek Ski Area has been the quietist and the size has not changed, with the tally at 987 acres, Bertram said.

The largest of the fires, West Fork Fire, which threatens the town of South Fork, now stands at about 49,862 acres, she said.

It is doubtful fire crews could establish any containment lines until there’s a break in the weather, possibly Tuesday, officials said. They remained optimistic they can protect the town of South Fork, however.

As of Sunday, firefighters battling three blazes in the fire complex remained focused on protecting South Fork, the Wolf Creek Ski Area and homes along Colorado Highway 149.

Crews hoped to get aircraft up to drop water ahead of the fires before afternoon winds of 30 to 40 miles an hour returned Sunday. Pete Blume, a commander with the Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Command Team, said the wildfires are the worst ever to hit the Rio Grande National Forest.

“It’s not typical to have these kinds of fires here,” said Blume. “But beetle kill and drought is also not the norm.”

Firefighters are hoping for a break in the high winds as well as the anticipated July monsoons to help them fight back the flames. Until then, Blume said, “with that much beetle kill and drought we could have every resource in the country here and still not put in a containment line.”

Still, fire officials believe portions of the blaze likely will burn all summer in forested, nonresidential areas, with full extinguishment probably months away.

The lightning-sparked blazes started June 5, but the rapid advance Friday prompted the evacuation of hundreds of visitors and South Fork’s 400 permanent residents.

Residents and tourists were settling in for a long wait before they can return to their homes, cabins and RV parks.

“They just said they had no idea how long it would be before we could back in South Fork,” said Mike Duffy, who owns the South Fork Lodge.

Duffy said he and his wife, Mary, were able to get their personal possessions before fleeing fast-advancing flames that officials initially feared would overtake the town. But with one of the fires in the West Fork Fire Complex still within three miles of South Fork, they are worried about the long-term impact of a prolonged evacuation and news reports about the fires raging around the tourism-dependent town.

Summer visitors include many retirees from Texas and Oklahoma who come to the mountains to flee the heat.

South Fork Mayor Kenneth Brooke estimates that between 1,000 to 1,500 people had to flee, including the summer visitors and permanent residents.

More than 600 firefighters were battling the three blazes, and more firefighters are coming every day. They also focused on newest arm of the fire, The Papoose Fire, as it crept through beetle kill toward the historic mining town of Creede, the last silver-boom town in Colorado before the industry went bust in the late 1800s.

Herald Staff Writer Robert Galin contributed to this report.

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