USA — SOUTH FORK Shifting winds and hard work by firefighters saved the town of South Fork on Friday. But the danger is far from over.
The West Fork complex, a combination of three wildfires West Fork, Windy Pass and Papoose is continuing to spread in steep, rugged terrain through beetle-killed spruce on the west side of Wolf Creek Pass in southwestern Colorado. Conditions will remain hot and dry on Saturday.
“We have fire crews stationed around town, ready,” Mayor Kenneth Brooke said. Those crews worked to remove any debris or woods near threatened structures, shutting down propane tanks.
“We are at the mercy of this thing,” South Fork Police Chief James Garcia said.
Garcia stressed that, despite some reports on social media, no structures in town have been lost.
“There hasn’t been a flame in town all day,” he said around 6:30 p.m.
Cloud cover and shifting winds late in the afternoon gave crews a boost in their battle on Friday afternoon, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Bruce Palmer.
At 7:30 p.m., more firefighters were able to advance southwest from town to reinforce the crews closer to the blaze.
Resources assigned to the area included 32 engine crews and two hand crews, according to officials with the emergency operation center in Alamosa. There were 275 personnel working Friday afternoon, fire officials said.
The town, with an estimated population of 600, is located in Rio Grande County and is noted for a scene from the 1983 Chevy Chase movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” which was filmed there.
During the summer, the area’s population can swell to about 4,000, including campers and vacationers.
“South Fork evacuees need to prepare to spend at least a couple of days away from home,” Matt Smith, Colorado Wildfire Information administrator, said in a news release.
Amateur pictures of the blaze posted on social media showed a Hollywood-like inferno, with glowing smoke looming above the town.
Up to 100 miles from town, thick haze caused cars to use their headlights during the day while the smell of burning wood was inescapable.
The fire has burned almost 40,000 acres and forced the closure of U.S. 160 over Wolf Creek Pass as well as Colorado 149.
Resting toward the end of a long day at the Big Meadows Campground, near the spot where the fire started, Kendall Strand, of the elite Monument-based Pike Hot Shots unit, said: “One of the biggest things I noticed is all the dead trees. It’s just dry.
“Once it’s in there, it’s pretty intense. I haven’t seen a lot like it …
“We were doing what we could. It’s not over.”
Major Lawrence Martin of the State Patrol said erratic winds made the fire especially dangerous.
“We are afraid if it gets across Highway 149, it has the potential to run right into Saguache (nearly 50 miles to the northeast),” he said.
Penny Bertram, a West Fork fire spokeswoman with the National Incident Management Organization team, said that the fire had been actively burning for 12 hours a day, helping it grow rapidly.
Brooke said there were a few residents who didn’t evacuate Friday.
On the east edge of town, near the Alpine subdivision on the banks of the Rio Grande River, Al Keefe and a friend pleaded with a Rio Grande County sheriff’s deputy for information on an 85-year-old acquaintance who had refused to leave his house.
“All we are doing is a favor for his wife,” Keefe told the deputy. “We want to make sure he is all right.”
The deputy radioed to colleagues inside the town and reported back.
“He will not leave,” the deputy said. “We can’t force him to leave. He said he would pick up and leave if the flames get close enough.”
The fires that make up the complex are believed to have been started by lightning.
Other wildfires around the state also continued their paths of destruction.
In southern Colorado, the East Peak fire, 10 miles southwest of Walsenburg, grew to 9,400 acres with zero percent containment.
Gov. John Hickenlooper declared a disaster emergency Friday afternoon, authorizing $3 million from the Disaster Emergency Fund to pay for fire suppression, response and recovery for East Peak. He also announced on Twitter that federal funds would be available for the West Fork complex.
The East Peak fire has destroyed at least nine homes and four outbuildings, including the Boy Scout ranch. The cause of that blaze is still unknown.
Closer to Denver, firefighters worked to keep the Lime Gulch fire in Jefferson County from jumping the South Platte River. More than 280 personnel are assigned to the fire, which has burned 498 acres and is 15 percent contained.
Late Friday, officials announced that some roads in the area, including the Buffalo Creek Township, would be open to residents only beginning at 8 that night.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.