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Officials to ‘do what we can’ to open Hwy. 160

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

DEL NORTE (Tuesday 11:45 a.m.) – Fire and law enforcement officials on both sides of the Continental Divide plan to meet today to discuss the possibility of reopening Wolf Creek Pass.

“(We) are looking to see if there are ways we can open it up,” said Pete Blume, an incident commander in Del Norte. “I can fairly and emphatically say it’s not going to be unrestricted traffic. But we may find a way we can manage traffic through at certain times of the day under certain pilot-car conditions.

“We know how important it is not just to the community but really the whole state to have (U.S. Highway) 160 open,” he said, “so we’re going to do what we can.”

Meanwhile, weather conditions improved Tuesday, making this the first day in six days that a “red flag warning” was not issued. Red flag warnings are issued on hot, dry, windy days.

“We are just under red flag thresholds today. It’s not exactly like it’s going to be a great fire weather day,” Blume said. “I guess we can count our blessings every time we have the wind drop a little bit.”

Three wildfires were threatening the town of South Fork, several homes near Creede and Wolf Creek Ski Area.

The West Fork Fire, started June 5 by lightning, was estimated at 54,000 acres, the Papoose fire at 23,605 acres and the Windy Pass fire at 1,355 acres.

Forecasters were predicting winds to shift from the southwest to a more westerly flow, which was expected to push the fire into new areas that have not burned.

Higher humidities, lower wind speed and the westerly direction were expected to blanket Del Norte in smoke Tuesday.

The U.S. Forest Service has set up an air-quality monitoring in Del Norte to make sure conditions don’t reach dangerous levels. Residents concerned about the smoke were advised to leave town, if possible; close windows at night and reduce physical activity.

Fire officials were focusing much of their attention on the Papoose Fire, which is burning toward Creede. It has the potential to deposit large amounts of ash into reservoirs and compromise water quality.

“The Papoose has a lot of focus right now,” said Adam Mendonca, a deputy forest advisor with the Rio Grande National Forest. “Up there around that Papoose area, we’ve got a lot of valuable risk, and a lot of them do consist of structures.”

He added: “South Fork is still a major concern.”

Firefighters also considered burning some fuels near reservoirs today in an effort to slow the fire as it approaches, making it so it doesn’t burn so hot and create so much ash, Blume said.

“It is action to hopefully make things better,” he said.

The fire had come within three or four miles of South Fork, Blume said. Firefighters have built bulldozer line about 1½ mile from the town to protect it. It was a single blade – 10 to 12 feet thick – and firefighters planned to widen it in the following days.

With cooler temperatures and less wind, fire officials hope to use air support more today than has been possible the last couple days.

The public has been allowed to drive on Colorado Highway 149 between South Fork and Creede, but only once an hour and by following a pilot car. It is possible something similar will be allowed for motorists on Wolf Creek Pass, but it will be more restrictive, Blume said.

The West Fork Fire was burning parallel to U.S. Highway 160, he said.

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