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West Fork fire tops 70,000 acres; cabins in danger

DENVER — The West Fork fire picked up speed Saturday night, spanning 70,257 acres by noon Sunday and posing an even greater threat to towns in the San Luis Valley.

The Papoose fire, considered part of the West Fork Complex, also grew significantly.

The town of South Fork remained evacuated. There was also a mandatory evacuation order encompassing the area from the top of Wolf Creek Pass to the city limits of South Fork. Shelters are located at Del Norte High School for people and the Sky High Complex in Monte Vista for RVs and large animals.

Spruce beetles have killed as much as 70 percent of the trees in the affected area, essentially creating “vertical kilns,” fire behavior analyst Kim Foley said. Driven by drought conditions and stiff winds, the dead trees can spew embers up to a half-mile, making the blaze tough to contain.

The fires remain on the west side of Highway 149, but some structures along the 149 corridor are definitely in danger, officials said. Firefighters were burning the yards of cabins Sunday to create firebreaks and hopefully save the buildings themselves.

Calmer winds helped slow the fires which changed direction Saturday, moving more to the northwest in the general direction of Creede and away from South Fork. The town remains under evacuation, but business owners were allowed a brief opportunity today to go back to their establishments to pick up essentials.

The town of Creede has not been put under a mandatory evacuation order yet.

There are currently about 1,500 under evacuation orders. South Fork has about 400 residents in all. As of Saturday morning, the fire was about three to five miles from the town, but had not threatened any structures.

The complex is composed of three fires: the West Fork, Windy Pass and Papoose fires.

All three fires are burning in steep, rugged terrain with large amounts of beetle-killed spruce which is making it difficult for firefighters to attack the burn area. A Red Flag warning was issued for the fourth day in a row, and weather conditions remain hot and dry, which is ideal for rapid fire growth.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authorized the use of federal funds Friday night to help with firefighting costs for the West Fork Complex in Mineral and Rio Grande Counties. Officials said resources will increase over the weekend, with an influx of engines, crews and aviation coming in from other areas of the state.

The West Fork Complex was initially burning on the west side of Wolf Creek Pass. But it crossed over the Continental Divide burning in a northeasterly direction, and headed down the east side of Wolf Creek Pass above Big Meadows Reservoir down to Metroz Lake.

Parts of Highway 149 remain closed in the area. Major smoke is reportedly impacting communities near Highway 160, and to the north and east of the fire.

The area from the top of Wolf Creek Pass to the outer city limits of South Fork is also under mandatory evacuation.

Del Norte High School located at 1055 9th Street has been opened as the fire evacuation center.

The public information number for the West Fork Fire is (970) 731-2745. You can find more information about evacuations at http://www.acemergency.org/.