The Papoose Fire burns west of Highway 149, north of Creede.
Courier photo by Lauren Krizansky
Courier staff writer
DEL NORTE — Mother Nature gave West Fork Complex firefighters a slight break on Tuesday, as winds calmed down and a high-pressure system moved into the area.
Winds were expected to shift to the west/southwest at 10 to 20 miles per hour, with gusts of up to 30 miles per hour.
But incident commanders say the potential for extreme fire behavior, intensity and growth is still a concern, given the warm temperatures, low humidity and extremely dry fuels in the mountains.
“It’s not exactly like great fire weather, but I guess we can count our blessings every time we have the wind drop a little bit,” Incident Commander Pete Blume said.
By Tuesday morning, the three fires that are burning inside the complex near South Fork had grown to a combined total of roughly 79,182 acres.
So far, though, no known structures have been damaged or destroyed, and firefighters remain focused on protecting the Town of South Fork, the Wolf Creek Ski Area and homes along the Highway 149 corridor.
There are now a total of 1,313 personnel on the scene, along with 68 engines, one dozer, 14 water tenders and 11 helicopters.
Crews have already built a dozer line between the eastern edge of the 54,222-acre West Fork Fire and South Fork, keeping the flames an estimated three to four miles away from the town. They continued to improve and reinforce that line on Wednesday, and they also kept the flames away from structures on Highway 149, Blume said.
South Fork, along with Wagon Wheel Gap and the area south of Creede on the south side of Highway 149 remain under evacuation orders. But crews are escorting restricted numbers of business owners back into South Fork.
“It is on a very limited basis and really should be taken very seriously,” Blume said.
Crews are also escorting local Highway 149 traffic from Creede between Wagon Wheel Gap and the Highway 160 junction, but Highway 160 itself remains closed from the chain-up area to South Fork.
Incident commanders planned to meet Tuesday afternoon with local officials on both sides of the Continental Divide to discuss the issue of reopening Highway 160, if only on a restricted basis.
“We know how important it is to not just the community, but really the whole state,” Blume said.
Eastern zone of the West Fork Fire
Firefighters will continue to provide structure protection along Highway 149 and near Lake Humphreys and Metroz Lake. Structure protection is also in place east of Highway 149 in the event that the fire pushes to the east and crosses the highway. Firefighters in the area will be evaluating structures and monitoring fire activity. At the southern flank, along Highway 160, crews are working to keep the flames north of the roadway.
Meanwhile, the western zone of the West Fork Fire is showing signs of moderate fire activity on the south flank above Borns Lake and farther to the west. Crews were expected to complete the installation and testing of a sprinkler system to protect the Blue Spruce Resort and other buildings along the West Fork Road.
Between Monday and Tuesday morning, the blaze southwest of Creede had grown to 23,605 acres.
Crews are working to slow down the fire’s spread toward the north, and they’re continuing to provide structural protection to the north and northwest.
On the western flank of the fire, crews are preparing for the possibility that the fire could reach the Rio Grande Reservoir.
If the fire crosses the Squaw Creek drainage southwest of Creede, they plan to use firing operations to back it down to the reservoir.
“It’s an action to hopefully make things better and not put more fire on the ground,” Blume said.
Windy Pass Fire
The smallest of the three blazes continued to burn in beetle-killed timber south of the Wolf Creek Ski Area.
On Monday, wind gusts above Wolf Creek Pass reached speeds of up to 62 miles per hour, and the fire grew from 1,244 acres to 1,355 acres by Tuesday morning. But according to the most recent updates, the fire had not crossed the Continental Divide.
Crews were hoping on Tuesday to drop fire retardants in order to slow or stop the fire’s advance toward Waterfall Creek. They also continued to work on contingency lines to protect the ski area.
For the latest information on the West Fork Complex, go to: http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/ 3436/.
Also follow the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team on Twitter at: @rmt1pio.
For information about the steps to take to reduce exposure to smoke, go to: http://www.colorado.gov/airquality/wildfire.aspx#.