Fire fighters from across the San Luis Valley answered a mutual aid call Friday morning to South Fork where residents were asked to evacuate by 10 a.m. Three members of the Baca-Crestone Volunteer Fire Department were among those checking and tagging houses on Spruce Drive in west South Fork, from left, Dan Wheeler, Ivan Lakish and Larry Koehler.
Courier photo by Keith R. Cerny
Courier staff writer
SOUTH FORK — Relentless winds are blowing the West Fork Fire closer and closer to the town of South Fork, and outside help is either already here or on the way.
A Type I Incident Command Team transitioned into place on the Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF) to deal with fires on the east side of the Continental Divide yesterday, but had not yet received its “delegation of authority” as of press time Friday night, according to Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team PIO Laura McConnell. The team expects to take over the fire this weekend.
“We are still waiting for our briefing,” McConnell said in a phone interview. “Stay tuned to your local outlets for updates.”
More than 30 fire engines and two crews from throughout southern Colorado were reported on the ground and in the air around 5 p.m. on Friday, and they are positioned to protect the town that was evacuated on Thursday night from the West Fork Fire, according to reports. Aerial attacks involving helicopters and planes are ongoing at the town line, but were issued a Red Flag Warning for the third day in a row because winds were too strong to fly. Local resources remain on standby.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has authorized the use of federal funds to help with fire fighting costs for the fire in Mineral and Rio Grande Counties, according to a press release.
On Friday, FEMA Acting Regional Administrator Doug Gore has approved the state’s request for a Federal Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAG), according to a press release. At the time of the request, the fire was threatening over 200 homes in and around the town of South Fork and numerous rural subdivisions and scattered homes.
Mandatory evacuations have been issued for 250 - 300 homes and there are several thousand additional tourists included in the mandatory evacuation area. The fire is also threatening watersheds, recreation and tourism in the area, and has closed US Highway 160 between the town of South Fork and Treasure Falls.
The authorization makes FEMA funding available to pay 75 percent of the state’s eligible fire fighting costs under an approved grant for managing, mitigating and controlling designated fires, according to a press release. These grants do not provide assistance to individual home or business owners and do not cover other infrastructure damage caused by the fire.
Over the past two days, the West Fork Fire grew from 12,001 acres to close to 30,000 acres, making an “unprecedented” eruption traveling seven miles in a northeasterly direction, according to a press release. The hot, dry and windy weather along with large stands of beetle-killed trees are causing extreme fire behavior. Most fires actively burn four hours a day, but the West Fork Fire has surpassed 12. Hand crews have struggled to assail the fire because of the mountainous terrain.
So far, the fire has burned in a northeasterly direction crossing the Continental Divide and burning on the ridge above Big Meadows Reservoir down to Metroz Lake, where at least four structures went up in flames, according to a press release. In some locations, the fire was only one-half mile from Highway 160 on Friday night and within two miles of the town of South Fork. Firefighters were able to hold the fire from spreading to the south, and yesterday’s fire activity did not damage Borns Lake cabin and structures.
The blaze has also prevented the mail from making it to South Fork, according to a press release. The Postal Service has relocated all South Fork mail operations to the Del Norte Post Office, approximately 14 miles to the east.
On Thursday, the American Red Cross (AMR) set up a shelter at the Del Norte High School offering beds, food and toiletries. Counseling and nursing services are also available and food should be coordinated through the Del Norte High School Shelter.
Temporary services are also being offered at Ski Hi Park, the Adams State University, the Alamosa School District and the Zapata Ranch.
“This is a place where people can come,” said ARC Director Cindi Shank Friday morning. “We will be feeding them, showering them. This is a one-stop shop.”
Transportation for those needing assistance was pre-staged and is being coordinated through the Alamosa EOC, according to reports.
In addition to the town of South Fork, Big Meadows Campground and the Tucker Ponds Campground were closed and evacuated. Forest Roads 410 into Big Meadows and 430 from Big Meadows to Hunters Lake have been closed, and the East Fork Road was also closed beyond the East Fork Campground. Lake Humphreys and 4UR areas on the north side of the Weminuche Wilderness, about six miles south of Wagon Wheel Gap, were also evacuated.
As of press time Friday night, the town of Creede had not been issued evacuation orders.
Many Fun Valley summer workers and residents found themselves displaced after being told they had to evacuate their summer retreat.
“We are going to wait it out,” said Fun Valley summer resident Jay Andrews, Englewood, Texas, at the Ski Hi Park evacuation site Friday morning. “We will stay up here for the summer even if we can’t go back.”
Although he was determined to continue his vacation tradition, his wife, Karen, was only hopeful the fire wouldn’t make its way into the RV park.
“It has been an awesome experience,” said Karen, overwhelmed with tears in her eyes. “To see all of that smoke up in the skies. It is also scary.”
Locals, however, might not have any home in which to return.
“We left this (Friday) morning with just our clothes,” said six year South Fork resident Judy Durham. “I would die if something happens. I’ve given my whole life to this house.”
She and her husband, Jimmy, live close to Highway 160, and have spent the last few weeks wondering if it would all come down to this.
“This is something I don’t understand,” Jimmy said. “It has been out there for a week. You don’t just see the smoke. You see the clouds boiling. It is scary.”
Judy added, “Thursday was the worst day of all. It was an orange and yellow sky. We had ashes on our deck, and this morning they were bigger.”
The West Fork Fire in the Rio Grande National Forest is being managed along with the Windy Pass Fire that has reached within a quarter-mile of the Wolf Creek Ski Area, which has burned at least 1,065 acres, according to Friday reports. The two fires were combined on June 16 and named the West Fork Complex Fire.
Lightning stated both fires. The West Fork Fire ignited on June 5 and the Windy Pass Fire on June 13.