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Haze, service assures, is smoke, but no blaze

By Ann Butler , John Peel and Shane Benjamin Herald staff writers

The National Weather Service said today that smoke in the Durango area appears to be coming from fires smoldering in New Mexico, but it is uncertain of the exact origin.

Durango-area foresters assured that no fires were burning in the immediate vicinity, said Ann Bond, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.

An inversion Thursday night brought heavy smoke from the West Fork Complex into the Pagosa Springs area, but it is expected to disperse this morning.

Meanwhile, the West Fork Complex remained active Thursday with a “red-flag warning” issued because of dry, hot, windy conditions. A series of afternoon thunderstorms developed over the 83,004-acre burn area, with winds shifting to the northwest with gusts up to 40 mph.

A red-flag warning also is in effect from 1 to 9 p.m. today, and forecasters are predicting more thunderstorms with little to no precipitation this afternoon. The danger of lightning strikes sparking more fires continues.

The change in wind direction Thursday afternoon sent the West Fork fire in a new direction, the public information officers working the West Fork Complex said in a news release Thursday night.

“The winds, in alignment with heavy beetle-killed Englemann spruce, caused the fire to run several miles to the southeast,” the release said. “The fire is now established in Trout Creek.”

The fire spotted new blazes as far as a quarter to a half mile, the release said. Firefighters burned out around residences in the Trout Creek area, and a night shift of firefighters went in to assist with structure protection.

As of 9:30 p.m. Thursday, no structures were known to have been lost.

While rain will help with containment of the fires, it may bring its own hazards, as La Plata County residents witnessed after the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002, when several large mudslides closed several roads, some for days.

In a separate news release, the incident management teams said the probability is high for flash floods and poor water quality during the summer and fall and into spring 2014 for areas in the drainage systems below the fires. They issued a guide to flash-flood preparation Thursday.

“The burned areas within the West Zone of the West Fork Fire have suffered vegetation loss, particularly loss of ground cover, litter and duff,” the news release said. “Some of the burned soils may repel water more than normal. These factors combine to create an increased risk of flash flooding, debris flows and water-quality impacts within and downstream of the burned area.”

Residents are encouraged to know what to expect and how to react if flooding takes place.

Wolf Creek Pass remained closed Thursday; traffic along Colorado Highway 149 – between South Fork and Creede – was allowed through every hour with a pilot-car escort.

The town of South Fork remained evacuated for the seventh day.

Gov. John Hickenlooper stopped by the fire command center Thursday in Del Norte.

The West Fork Complex consists of three fires: the Windy Pass Fire at 1,403 acres, the Papoose Fire at 26,483 acres and the West Fork Fire at 55,118 acres, which is more than 86 square miles.

The West Fork Fire began first and has now been burning for more than three weeks – it was triggered June 5 from lighting.

There is no containment, and 1,561 people were working the complex of three fires as of Thursday evening. Among the resources on site are 11 Type 1 and 18 Type 2 hand crews; 113 fire engines; four bulldozers; 10 water tenders; five Type 1, two Type 2 and nine Type 3 helicopters; and two single-engine air tankers.


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