Courier staff writer
DEL NORTE - With Type 1 command in place, the end of the West Fork Complex Fire (WFCF) is about to begin.
Recently named Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team Incident Commander Pete Blume couldn't say when precisely the end would come during Sunday morning's press conference, but only that it would once the many known and unknown factors fall into place.
"With the fuels that are out there, with the drought that is out there, I am not optimistic that this is going to be a short term event," Blume said. "It is probably something the community is going unfortunately to have to live with until we see a significant break in the weather."
With no wind relief predicted until Tuesday, he said evacuees should expect up to a week before any updates on their chances of going home. When that point comes, they might be allowed to access their homes even if there is a threat of reevaluation, but that decision is up to the sheriff's office. Today, however, the fire continues to follow the wind pattern, throwing embers that could ignite spot fires up to a mile and a half away.
"We know what a big impact it is for the community, the businesses and the people," Blume said. "We will get you back just as quickly as we think we can safely do it."
The flames are devouring beetle kill spruce and steadily crawling through Aspen groves and grass fields, he said, and the 70,000 acre fire as of this afternoon continues to threaten Highways 160 and 149, but has not yet crossed or damaged any structures. The crews, including three 20-person hot shot teams, are securing structures and navigating the terrain to identify paths to direct the fire.
"It (the forest) doesn't have a lot of disturbance in there," said Type 1 Fire Behavioral Analyst Tim Foley about the blaze that is a first for the region. "When you combine the bug kill with the drought, it is unprecedented in this area. It is not the worst fire in the history of the state by any means. As far as the history in this area, it is the most active there has ever been reported."
Should the fire jump Highway 149, it would continue to fee on beetle kill, but would eventually die down once it hit the Valley floor where the fuels are much lighter.
The WFCF is a national top priority and Blume said his access to resources is beyond sufficient.
"I would expect over the next four days you will see us grow everyday," he said. "In terms of number of firefighters, number of engines and number of aircraft as well."
Aircraft, including tankers and DC-10s, will be used as available and as appropriate, Blume said. Today, the team was evaluating where they would be most useful in structure protection.
"Basically we will be working aviation as we see opportunities to slow the fire around areas of high value," he said. "It doesn't really accomplish a lot in the whole containment control of the fire. We choose to use the resource where they can do us the most good."
Today, aircraft was expected to deploy once the low smoke inversion lifted if winds stayed under control. A Red Flag Warning, however, was placed in effect today due to low relative humidity, strong winds and a Haines Index of 6, according to afternoon incident reports. 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.
The nation shares the aircraft resources, which makes them harder to attain, and the aircraft is sensitive to elevation, said Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team PIO Laura McConnell. When in use, they will be stationed in Durango, Pagosa Springs and Alamosa, and will deliver up to 799 gallon drops of pre-approved water from the area in addition to chemical substances.
McConnell also reported an individual associated with the fire fainted, but was in stable condition.
Current Situation, Sunday afternoon, Courtesy of Inciweb:
Papoose Fire: The Papoose Fire is the most active of the three fires in the complex. Today firefighters will focus on evaluating and providing structure protection along the northern perimeter of the fire. On the north side, the fire has burned into the flat and has crossed the river, but has not crossed Highway 149. Firefighters working on the Papoose Fire will be staying in a spike camp close to the fire.
East Zone of West Fork Fire: This zone includes the portion of the West Fork Fire that is on the north side of the Continental Divide. Today firefighters will focus on evaluating and providing structure protection between the West Fork Fire and Highways 149 and 160 in this zone. Sprinkler systems will be assembled and put in place as a precaution in the event that fire activity increases in the zone. Firefighters will also work to remove fuels adjacent to structures to provide additional protection. Areas west of South Fork are being evaluated for natural fire breaks that can be reinforced and used as control line to minimize the chances of the fire reaching the community. The fire is still estimated to be 4-5 miles from the town of South Fork. No structure loss has been documented at this time.
West Zone of West Fork Fire: Activity on the West Fork Fire, south of the continental divide, was more active yesterday than it has been all week. The fire made a run up the backside of Sheep Mountain to the east and is burning above Highway 160. Firefighters will be working today to catch any spots along the 160 corridor and additional firefighting resources have been brought in to protect private land and structures off of the West Fork Road around Borns Lake.
Windy Pass Fire: The Windy Pass Fire which is currently burning in an area with less dense vegetation than the other two fires, made a few short runs towards Lane Creek yesterday. Though we have very little growth in Windy Pass Fire, it has the potential to move into the volatile bug-killed vegetation on either the west or east side of the existing perimeter. Firefighters have been able to hold the Windy Pass Fire within the established indirect containment lines protecting the Wolf Pass Ski Area and additional engines to provide protection for the ski resort will be assigned to the fire today.
Weather: A Red Flag Warning is in effect today due to low relative humidity, strong winds, and a Haines Index of 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: There are multiple evacuations and pre-evacuations in effect for the fire area and vicinity. For more information on evacuations please check www.acemergency.org.
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 milepost 22.
Public Briefing: A briefing for evacuees and affected residents will be held daily at the Red Cross Shelter in Del Norte at 9 am.
Location: 14.5 miles north/northeast of Pagosa Springs, CO Start Date: 06/05/2013
Complex Size: 70,262 acres Percent Contained: 0%
Windy Pass: 987 acres Cause: Lightning
Papoose: 19,413 acres Total Personnel: 426 + with more arriving
West Fork: 49,862 acres
Resources Include: 3 Type 1 hand crews, 9 Type 2 hand crews, 31 engines, 6 water tenders, and overhead personnel
Air Resources: 3 Type 1 helicopters, 2 Type 2 helicopters, and 4 Type 3 helicopters
Places to get information:
Twitter: Follow the Rocky Mountain IMT @rmt1pio
Facebook: The Rocky Mountain IMT has a Facebook page dedicated to thank you's to the firefighters working on the fire line. Visit the page at https://www.facebook.com/RockyMtn.Type1.IMT.PIOs.
Information Boards: Information is posted at the Pagosa Springs Visitor Information Center. Information boards are being constructed and will be going up at Freemons Ranch near Creede, and the Forest Service office in Creede, and at the Red Cross Shelter in Del Norte.