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Wolf Creek Pass set to reopen

JERRY McBRIDE/ Durango Herald

Smoke from the West Fork Complex fires fills the Animas Valley on Friday. Forecasters say high pressure will trap the haze over the Durango area until at least the Fourth of July.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

The Colorado Department of Transportation plans to reopen U.S. Highway 160 over Wolf Creek Pass at 6 a.m. today to all traffic, it said Friday afternoon.

Barring any major change in fire behavior, the highway’s reopening can occur, the multiagency fire incident command team has determined, a CDOT news release said.

The stretch has been closed since June 20 because of conditions caused by the West Fork Complex, a trio of fires that continue to burn north and west of Wolf Creek Pass.

CDOT urged travelers to continue to check road conditions at www.cotrip.org in case of change.

Colorado Highway 149 from South Fork to Creede remains restricted. A pilot car leads vehicles periodically along this stretch.

Meanwhile, fire officials’ concern eased enough Friday to allow residents of South Fork, a town of 386 along U.S. Highway 160 northeast of Wolf Creek Pass, to return to the homes they were forced to abandon June 21.

Rio Grande County Sheriff Brian Norton said continuing danger from the fire can’t be overemphasized. He said heavy smoke continues to blanket the area, and that roads still carry heavy emergency vehicle traffic.

Durango haze from West Fork

The haze blanketing the Four Corners early in the week came from fires in New Mexico, but the very noticeable pall in the air Friday was from the West Fork Complex – and it’s expected to hang in there until at least the Fourth of July.

Smoke from the fire is trapped under a high-pressure system rotating over the Four Corners and the West in general, Chris Cuoco, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said Friday morning.

“It’s going to hang around until after the Fourth of July,” Cuoco said. “We don’t expect much of a change.

“It’s just going to keep cycling around,” he said. “It could rotate a little to the west, but not much.”

The Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center said Friday the weather system is pulling smoke down into New Mexico and then back up into Southwest Colorado.

Fire restrictions

As the result of recent hot, dry and breezy weather in Mesa Verde National Park, officials Friday said no open fires are permitted anywhere in the park, including residences and campground fire rings, effective today. Pressurized gas stoves and contained charcoal grills are OK in Morefield Campground and the Chapin picnic area. Smoking is permitted only in enclosed vehicles.

With no rain in the forecast, the restrictions may be in place for an extended period, officials said.

Also Friday, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe announced that Stage 2 fire restrictions will be put into place beginning Tuesday. Stage 1 restrictions are already in place for tribal lands, La Plata County and Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands below 8,500 feet in Southwest Colorado.

“Current weather and fuel conditions are at historic levels, and any fire has the potential to grow rapidly,” said Rich Gustafson, fire management officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in a news release Friday. “Everyone needs to be extremely cautious when out in the forest and outdoors this time of year.”

The West Fork Complex, comprised of three fires, reached 90,056 acres as of Friday morning. The West Fork Fire is at 56,373 acres, Windy Pass at 1,411 and Papoose at 32,272. There were 1,561 people, with fire engines, helicopters and air tankers, battling the blazes, mostly in the San Juan and Rio Grande national forests. As of Thursday evening, the cost to date of fighting the three fires was estimated to be $10.3 million.

Steve Till, fire information officer, said fire officials couldn’t estimate the increase of burned acreage from Friday, but hope to have new estimates today.

“Afternoon thunderstorms brought in gusty and erratic winds,” Till said, “so we were not able to get air tankers up in the air. The Papoose Fire did grow a fair amount in the southwest corner, near Baldy Mountain and Ruby Lake, and a little more in the northwest corner, but not in an area where there are houses.”

daler@durangoherald.com

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