West Fork Complex burning more than 80,000 acres

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DENVER — Residents in the southwestern Colorado town of South Fork are preparing for a long evacuation as a wildfire continues to rage through the Rio Grande National Forest.

The West Fork Complex doubled in size over the weekend, and has burned a total of 81,331 acres as of Wednesday morning.  The complex, believed to have been started by lightning, is actually three fires in the same area that are being managed simultaneously.

The town of South Fork, popular with tourists, has been evacuated. South Fork has about 400 residents in all, but South Fork Mayor Kenneth Brooke estimates that between 1,000 to 1,500 people were in town when the evacuation was ordered.

The fire is still just miles from South Fork, and officials said their main focus is structure protection.

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.

More than 1,300 firefighters are battling the fires in the complex, with more coming everyday.

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.

A red flag warning continues for much of south and southwestern Colorado. Winds were expected to push the fire east into new areas Tuesday, and officials said the fire is still at 0 percent containment.

The fires remain on the west side of Highway 149, but some structures along the 149 corridor are definitely in danger, officials said Tuesday. Firefighters were burning the yards of cabins Sunday to create firebreaks and hopefully save the buildings themselves. They have also created a dozer line around one side of South Fork to protect the numerous structures that are threatened.

Officials said they knew of no structures lost and their efforts remained focused on protecting South Fork, the Wolf Creek ski area and homes along Highway 149 as the newest arm of the fire crept through beetle kill toward the historic mining town of Creede.

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

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. It is now burning approximately 54,714 acres.

The Windy Pass Fire has burned 1,381 acres, and the Papoose Fire has burned 25,236 acres as of Tuesday morning.

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.

On Tuesday officials said Highway 160 may reopen to the public, but traffic would be restricted.

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/.