June 22, 2013 Updated: June 23, 2013 at 8:02 am
DEL NORTE - A massive wildfire threatening a tourist region in southwestern Colorado has grown to nearly 60,000 acres, but officials said Saturday that the erratic blaze had slowed and they were optimistic they could protect the town of South Fork.
The West Fork Complex fire's rapid advance prompted more than 400 evacuations Friday, and it could be days before people are allowed back into their homes, cabins and RV parks, fire crew spokeswoman Laura McConnell said. South Fork Mayor Kenneth Brooke estimated that up to 1,500 of the town's permanent residents and summer visitors were evacuated.
Some business owners were being allowed back into South Fork to prepare for the lifting of the evacuations.
Officials, meanwhile, closely monitored an arm of the blaze moving toward the neighboring town of Creede.
"We were very, very lucky," said Rio Grande County Commissioner Carla Shriver. "We got a free pass yesterday."
McConnell said no structures had been lost and the fire was still about 5 miles from the town.
The blaze had been fueled by dry, hot, windy weather and a stand of dead trees, killed by a beetle infestation. But the fire's spread had slowed by Saturday morning after the flames hit a healthy section of forest. Fire crews remained alert as more hot, dry and windy weather was forecast.
The wildfire, a complex of three blazes, remains a danger, officials said.
"The fire is very unpredictable," Shriver told evacuees at Del Norte High School, east of the fire. "They are saying they haven't quite seen one like this in years. There is so much fuel up there."
Smoke permeated the air Saturday in Del Norte, where a Red Cross shelter was set up for evacuees. Anticipating the mandatory South Fork evacuation would last for days, the Red Cross promised more supplies and portable showers.
Ralph and Leilani Harden of Victoria, Texas, spend summers in South Fork.
"We jumped out of the South Texas hot box into the Colorado frying pan," Ralph Harden said.
Bob and Sherry Mason bought the Wolf Creek Ski Lodge on the Western Edge of South Fork about a year and a half ago.
"This (wildfire) was in our contingency plan being Colorado, but we didn't expect it this soon," Sherry Mason said.
New fire crews, meanwhile, descended from other areas to join more than 32 fire engines stationed around South Fork, with hoses and tankers at the ready. Firefighters also worked to move potential fuel, such as lawn furniture, propane tanks and wood piles, away from homes and buildings.
The town of Creede's 300 residents were under voluntary evacuation orders as officials feared the fire could reach the roads leading out of town.
The heavy black smoke, broken up only by an orange glow over the outlines of the San Juan mountains, had lightened Saturday morning. It had been so thick that the shade from the smoke plume helped keep an 18-square-mile wildfire burning 100 miles to the east near Walsenburg from spreading as fast as it would have otherwise.
Susan Valente, an on-site spokeswoman for the fire near Walsenburg, said the shade helped keep the forest from drying out in the hot afternoon sun. Residents from 300 homes remain evacuated while in the city of Walsenburg and the town of Aguilar remain on pre-evacuation notice, meaning residents must be ready to flee at a moment's notice.
"Fire conditions are prime with the combination of fuels, heat, winds and low humidity," fire information officer Mike Stearly of the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, "It's expected to be like this through next Tuesday."
There are 12 wildfires burning in Colorado that have scorched 133 square miles.
Here is the status of fires elsewhere in the state
Lime Gulch fire
Fire managers say a 511-acre wildfire in the foothills west of Denver is 90 percent contained, as of *:30 p.m. Saturday. All pre-evacuations have been canceled, according to a statement released by spokesman Chad Teller.
Jefferson County Sheriff's officials have said the fire was believed to have been sparked by lightning sometime Tuesday. It grew rapidly in high winds Wednesday, prompting evacuations of about 100 people. About 358 firefighters are battling the blaze.
Wild Rose fire
The fire about 20 miles south of Rangely in northwest Colorado remains at 10 percent containment as of Saturday morning, and not 50 percent as erroneously reported earlier by the national fire Incident Information System. The lightning-caused fire started early Wednesday and has burned 1,065 acres.
About 46 structures are considered threatened, and there has been one minor injury, a cut finger.
The nearby 160-acre Collins fire southwest of Meeker is being handled by the same fire team. More resources have been ordered.
Bull Gulch fire
The 76-acre fire about nine miles northeast of Cotapaxi in Fremont County was at 80 percent contained on Saturday evening, fire managers said.
On Saturday, the Fremont County Sheriff's Office cancelled the pre-evacuation status for residents near the fire north of Texas Creek.
Fire crews have begun mop-up operations, and the fire is producing minimal smoke.
No structures have been lost; about 30 residences near Snow Drift Lane remain on pre-evacuation status.
The Texas Creek Trail system is now open again.
The fire started Wednesday afternoon; the cause is under investigation.
Brush Creek fire
The 450-acre fire is burning 12 miles north of Rifle in northwest Colorado. The lightning-caused fire started Thursday afternoon. No structures are threatened.
The national fire Incident Information System reported Saturday morning that 120 people are working this fire, as well as air support. Additional hand crews have been ordered.
Weather will make fire fighting difficult over the weekend, with wind and high temperatures in the forecast.
Rifle Gap remains partially closed to boating due to the helicopter activity.