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West Fork Fire jumps to 66,000 acres; moves toward Creede

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DENVER — The West Fork Complex fire continued to rage out of control Saturday, while the entire town of South Fork in Rio Grande County remains under mandatory evacuation.

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.

Smoke has spread across a wide area of Colorado, and incident commanders estimated the total size of the fire at 66,000 acres Saturday night. The fire is approximately 55 square miles.

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.

While growth of the fire was huge Friday, the fire’s behavior was more calm than it was Thursday. “It just wasn’t the fire behavior that we saw yesterday… only moved a few miles closer to South Fork, the town, so much different… we don’t want to alarm people unnecessarily,” said Fire Behavior Analyst Eric Norton.

“The fire behavior we saw yesterday (Thursday) was so extreme, it was undocumented and unprecedented," Norton said.

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.

The newest fire in the complex is the Papoose Fire, which is burning southwest of Creede. The fire made a significant run to the north on Friday afternoon, growing from 2,000 acres to more than 11,000. The fire is burning near the Road Canyon Reservoir, and was threatening subdivisions in the area.

In some locations, the fire is only half a mile from Highway 160, which is closed to traffic between the town of South Fork and Treasure Falls.

Highway 149 remains closed from Lake City to South Fork. 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. There is also a Red Cross shelter at the Gunnison Community School located at 1099 N. 11th St.

Lightning sparked West Fork Fire

"Both fires are burning in steep, rugged terrain with large amounts of beetle-killed spruce which makes it difficult and unsafe for firefighters to mount a direct attack. The fires were combined into a complex on Sunday, June 16," incident commanders said.

Lightning started the West Fork Fire on June 5. It is the much larger of the two fires

Lightning also started the Windy Pass Fire. That happened June 13. It is south of Wolf Creek Ski Area and east of Treasure Falls. It moved to within one-quarter mile of at least one structure at the Wolf Creek Ski Area.

Highway 160 also remains closed from South Fork to Pagosa Springs. Drivers are encouraged to take U.S. 285 South from Alamosa.

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/.