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WILDFIRE ROUNDUP: Shift in wind could save South Fork, blaze grows to 40,000 acres

By: The Gazette and Wire Services
June 21, 2013 Updated: June 21, 2013 at 10:30 pm
photo - A smoke filtered sun sets over the scar of the Waldo Canyon Fire and the Flying W Ranch Thursday, June 20, 2013. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
A smoke filtered sun sets over the scar of the Waldo Canyon Fire and the Flying W Ranch Thursday, June 20, 2013. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

SOUTH FORK - A shift in the wind Friday night might have saved South Fork.

The massive West Fork Complex wildfire came within two to three miles of the town, where 32 fire engines and a number of hand crews were prepared to do battle, according to the Archuleta County Sheriff's Office. The town of 400 people emptied ahead of the fast-burning blaze fueled by hot, windy weather. It nearly doubled in 24 hours, and by Friday night was estimated at 40,000 acres.

Homeowners in the area have been turning to social media, asking that people pray for their beloved southwestern Colorado residences.

The Denver Post reported that Bruce Palmer, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said winds shifted Friday evening and that the fire may not reach South Fork. Palmer said fire crews around the town will stay in place as a precaution.

Wildland firefighters teamed up with local firefighters to try to protect South Fork, which is surrounded by the Rio Grande National Forest. State authorities said the 47-square-mile West Fork Complex fire was advancing at a rate of about a mile an hour.

Archuleta County Emergency officials tweeted around 3:30 p.m. Friday that the fire was still 2 to 3 miles west of South Fork. "Fire has not made it to town yet. It still may today," the tweet read.

Fire spokeswoman Penny Bertram said officials rate the chances of saving the town if the fire reaches it as "low to moderate."

Bertram said the hot, dry and windy weather along with large stands of beetle-killed trees are causing extreme fire behavior. While most fires actively burn four hours a day, this one is burning for 12 hours a day, helping it to mushroom in recent days.

The town is a popular spot for hiking and camping. The fictional Griswold family camped in South Fork in 1983's "National Lampoon's Vacation." The famous scene where a dog urinates on a picnic basket was filmed at South Fork's Riverbend Resort, called "Kamp Komfort" in the movie.

Residents were sent to a high school in a neighboring town.

South Fork's mayor, Kenneth Brooke, sent his children and grandchildren to a safe location and stayed behind, helping several dozen area fire responders prepare for hosing down structures.

Brooke said authorities are allowing him to stay in South Fork unless the blaze crests a nearby mountain. The mayor was taking phone calls from nervous neighbors and telling them the town's grim forecast.

"I just tell them it doesn't looks good," Brook told The Associated Press by phone Friday. "I tell them the truth, that the fire is coming. I just tell them to keep themselves safe, evacuate as need be and don't come back.

"We're just watching the fire and doing what we can for people's properties, but mostly it's just waiting. Right now I'm saying, 'Stay out.'"

Firefighters have largely let the lightning-sparked fire burn because it's too hot and erratic to fight on the ground. Water and slurry drops from air tankers also haven't been effective, with pilots reporting that their drops largely evaporated before hitting the ground.

"There's no stopping it," Bertram said.

The town was incorporated in 1992, making it Colorado's youngest municipality. The town lost 11 structures in the 2002 Million fire, which charred more than 14 square miles.

South Fork residents are used to damaging wildfires, but this year's is shaping up to be the worst, Brooke said.

"Our tourists are what support the town. The fires are going to run everybody away. So that's going to hurt," he said.

At about 7 a.m. Friday, South Fork was put under mandatory evacuation, according to the Colorado State Patrol. All residents were told to evacuate by taking Highway 10A.

U.S. Highway 160 is closed west of South Fork.

The fire - a combination of the West Fork and Windy Pass fires that have merged - burned 29,911 acres as of 6 a.m. Friday and is zero percent contained, according to fire officials. It moved Thursday within a quarter-mile of Wolf Creek Ski Area.

The West Fork fire, which started in the San Juan Mountains in Mineral County, has been the main culprit behind smoke-filled skies in the Pikes Peak region over the past few days.

There doesn't appear any relief in sight over the next week, with forecast highs in the 90s in little chance of precipitation, according to the National Weather Service.

Here's an update on other fires around the state:

East Peak fire

A Type 2 team assumed command at the 9,400-acre fire in Huerfano County that has consumed nine homes and four outbuildings.

There is zero containment and fire managers say the potential for growth is extreme.

About 20 homes with 26 residents have been evacuated, and more than 170 Boy Scouts left the Spanish Peaks Scout Ranch after the fire broke out Wednesday.

Mandatory evacuations are in place for residents east of the town of La Veta to Interstate 25, and south of Walsenburg to the Las Animas County line. Walsenburg is on pre-evacuation notice.

The Colorado National Guard is assisting with law enforcement, road closures and suppression efforts.

The Spanish Peaks area is closed.

Lime Gulch fire

Fire managers say a 500-acre wildfire in the foothills west of Denver is now 15 percent contained.

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.

However, some road closures have been relaxed. Sheriff's officials said Friday night that the township of Buffalo Creek is now open to residents. Sheriff's officials say residents should be ready to leave again if conditions change.

A spokesperson for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office stressed that ground crews were mainly putting out the fire Friday, not air support.

No structures were threatened.

Wild Rose fire

The fire about 20 miles south of Rangely in northwest Colorado was 50 percent contained Friday night, according to the national fire Incident Information System. The lightning-caused fire started early Wednesday and has burned 1,052 acres.

The nearby 160-acre Collins fire southwest of Meeker is being handled by the same fire team.

Bush 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.

Bull Gulch fire

The 150-acre fire about nine miles northeast of Cotapaxi in Fremont County was 30 percent contained Friday night, fire managers said. No structures have been lost; about 30 residences near Snow Drift Lane remain on pre-evacuation status. The Texas Creek Trail system is closed. The fire started Wednesday afternoon; the cause is under investigaton.

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