DEL NORTE - A colossal wildfire near a popular summer retreat in southern Colorado continues to be driven by winds and fueled by dead trees in a drought-stricken area, authorities said Sunday.
Monday, members of the Colorado National Guard joined the firefighting effort and will be providing added security and staffing roadblocks.
The West Fork Complex Fire consists of three wildfires: West Fork Fire, Windy Pass Fire and Papoose Fire, that are burning on the San Juan and Rio Grande national forests in southwest Colorado.
The weather has prevented fire crews from making progress on the blaze, which grew overnight to 75,150 acres. The speed with which the fire has spread is exceptional.
No structures have been lost in the fire, and no injuries have been reported. The estimated cost of fighting the blaze is $2.2 million.
It is doubtful fire crews could establish any containment lines until there's a break in the weather, possibly Tuesday, officials said. They remained optimistic they can protect the town, however.
Firefighters remain focused on protecting South Fork, the Wolf Creek ski area and homes along Highway 149.
Pete Blume, a commander with the Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Command Team, said the wildfire is the worst ever known to hit the Rio Grande National Forest.
"It's not typical to have these kinds of fires here," Blume said. "But beetle kill and drought is also not the norm."
Firefighters are hoping for a break in the high winds, as well as the anticipated July monsoons to help them fight back the flames. Until then, Blume said, "with that much beetle kill and drought, we could have every resource in the country here and still not put in a containment line."
Still, fire officials believe portions of the blaze will likely burn all summer in forested, nonresidential areas, with full extinguishment probably months away.
The 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.
The lightning-sparked blaze started June 5, but its rapid advance Friday prompted the evacuation of hundreds of visitors and the town's 400 permanent residents.
Residents and tourists were settling in for a long wait before they can return to their homes, cabins and RV parks.
"They just said they had no idea how long it would be before we could be back in South Fork," Mike Duffy, who owns the South Fork Lodge, said.
Duffy said he and his wife, Mary, were able to get their personal possessions before fleeing fast-advancing flames that officials initially feared would overtake the town. But with the fire still within three miles of South Fork, they are worried about the long-term impact of a prolong evacuation and news reports about the fire raging around the tourism-dependent town.
Summer visitors include many retirees from Texas and Oklahoma who come to the mountains to flee the heat.
South Fork Mayor Kenneth Brooke estimates that between 1,000 to 1,500 people had to flee, including the summer visitors and permanent residents.
There are multiple road and trail closures. The primary closures are Highway 160 from the chain-up area to South Fork, and Highway 149 between South Fork and Creede from mile post 1 through mile post 22. For additional information on road and trail closures affecting the San Juan National Forest, go to http://1.usa.gov/LSJkGN.
Nearly 900 firefighters were battling the blaze, and more are coming every day. They also focused on newest arm of the fire as it crept through beetle kill toward the historic mining town of Creede, the last silver boom town in Colorado before the industry went bust in the late 1800s.
Papoose Fire: Fire activity was primarily on the southeast flank within the Weminuche Wilderness and on the northwest flank near Shotgun Mountain. To the west of Shotgun Mountain, firefighters worked to improve Forest Road 521 so it can be used as a control line as the fire continues to push to the northwest. Along the north end, firefighters continued to reduce fuels and provide structure protection along Highway 149. Aerial resources supported the firefighting operations.
East Zone of West Fork Fire: Fire activity was primarily on the northwest in the vicinity of Fisher Mountain. Firefighters continued to put structure protection measures in place along Highway 149 and near Lake Humphreys and Metroz Lake. Sprinklers are being placed adjacent to structures and will be used in the event that they become threatened by the fire. Along Highway 160, firefighters, with the assistance of aerial resources, were able to keep the fire north of the highway. The dozer line, near Sentinel Peak has been completed and tied into existing roads. This will provide a line of defense between the fire and the community of South Fork.
West Zone of West Fork Fire: The West Zone of the West Fork fire is the portion of the fire burning south of the continental divide. There was not a lot of movement on the south end of fire today though the south west corner continues to have some active burning. Firefighters are about 90% complete with their work installing a sprinkler system to protect Bruce Spruce Resort and other structures along West Fork Road today and they will be completing and testing the system tomorrow. Structure protection remains in place for Borns Lake.
Windy Pass Fire: The Windy Pass Fire had some active burning primarily within the existing fire perimeter. Crews continued to work on contingency lines protecting the Wolf Creek Ski Area and also reinforced the contingency line on the south end from about 3 miles east along East Fork Road to highway 160. Firefighters continue to protect the Wolf Creek Ski Area.
Weather: Another Red Flag Warning is in effect today due to low relative humidity, gusty winds, and a Haines Index of 6. Winds are predicted to be out of the southwest 15-25 mph gusting to 35. Wind gusts could reach 50 mph on the ridge tops. Relative humidity will be 11-16 percent, and the Haines Index is 6. The Haines Index measures the stability and dryness of the air over the fire. A Haines Index of 6 indicates that there is a high potential for extreme fire behavior, intensity, and growth.
Evacuations and Closures: No additional closures or evacuations have been issued. Beginning today at 9:00 am, local traffic from Creede is being escorted between Wagon Wheel Gap and Highway 160. This is for residents of Creede and those areas not evacuated along Highway 149 near the Papoose Fire.