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West Fork Complex battle continues

Staff Writer

SUN photo/Terri House, helicopter photo courtesy Mark W. Young Winds push a plume of heavy smoke above the West Fork Fire. That fire and the Windy Pass Fire have together grown to more than 4,000 acres.

SUN photo/Terri House,
Winds push a plume of heavy smoke above the West Fork Fire. That fire and the Windy Pass Fire have together grown to more than 4,000 acres.

According to the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch (DIFD), as of June 19, the West Fork Fire and the Windy Pass Fire (the West Fork Complex) had grown to a total of 4,070 acres, with 256 people assigned to fire management.

Those assigned to the complex include personnel from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Colorado State Forest service — all trained to deal with local fires of a certain size and complexity.

Due to the size and complexity of the West Fork Complex fires, however, transition to a National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) team occurred June 19. This is a Type 2 incident management team whose members are more experienced with management of wildfires than are personnel at the local level.

The West Fork Fire is burning primarily east of the West Fork River in the Weminuche Wilderness and is not an imminent threat to any private property. Steps have been taken to protect private property just to the south of the fire, in the Born’s Lake area.

At the southern end of the fire, close to Born’s Lake, the forest service is using helicopters to focus the blaze northward into the wilderness and working to keep the fire from traveling south, with the potential to endanger the private structures.

According to DIFD, the recent moderate weather in the area has allowed firefighters to build a direct fireline around hot spots and tie them in to a rocky ridge. This supplements the protection for the Born’s Lake properties.

photo courtesy Mark W. Young A helicopter takes water from Born’s Lake for use on the southern edge of the West Fork Fire as efforts are made to turn the blaze from structures in the area.

photo courtesy Mark W. Young
A helicopter takes water from Born’s Lake for use on the southern edge of the West Fork Fire as efforts are made to turn the blaze from structures in the area.

The Windy Pass Fire is burning southwest of Wolf Creek Pass and east of Treasure Falls remaining in a deep bowl that has provided shelter from the winds.

According to Steve Till, public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service, Pagosa Ranger District, the fuel loading on the ground, the weather and the winds provide the potential for the Wolf Creek Ski area to experience fire damage.

“It may not happen,” Till said. “It (the fire) may just sit there. But we need to be ready in case it does (move).”

“They have included Wolf Creek Ski Area in the fire complex, based on projections of where the fire might go,” said Davey Pitcher, owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area. “We appreciate that.

“They have had some fire specialists looking at our buildings and facilities, and we are doing some vegetation removal. The ski area is in no immediate danger at this time. But, it’s hard to say what will happen; fires can change direction and become a problem, so we’re very appreciative for the concern being shown by fire officials and for the precautionary measures.”

Pitcher indicated the fire and resulting activities have not slowed a major summer construction project involving the installation of a new lift at the area.

“We’ve pulled some guys off the project to do the vegetation removal work around the buildings,” he said, “but the lift project is continuing. “

Pitcher also noted that the fires have a positive aspect. “Fire is part of the natural process,” he said, “and this could be a good thing for the health of the forest in the area.”

By identifying areas such as open meadows and previously logged areas, fire management crews are able to link those areas together to create an effective fire line. In some areas, fire management crews have begun fire line construction.

Firefighters will continue efforts to protect the ski area.

Current road closures in the complex include West Fork Road (NFSR 648), Falls Creek Road (NFSR 039) and Wolf Creek Road (NFSR 725). Trail closures include the West Fork Trail, also known as Rainbow Hot Springs Trail, Treasure Mountain Trail, Windy Pass Trail, the Continental Divide Trail from its junction with Middle Fork Trail east and south to its junction with the East Fork Road at Elwood Pass on the Rio Grande National Forest, and the Lobo Overlook at the top of Wolf Creek Pass.

According to Till, the Forest Service is unable to predict when closures will be lifted. The roads and trails will stay closed as long as there is danger.

“The good news is that we are getting lots of recourse,” Till said, “We understand the smoke and everything it impacts. We really appreciate the public’s support and understanding.”

With smoky conditions in the area, residents and visitors are reminded that it’s recommended they refrain from exercising outdoors, especially if they smell smoke or notice eye or throat irritation.

Extra precaution should be taken for children, who are more susceptible to smoke because their respiratory systems are still developing and they breathe in more air (and consequently more pollution) per pound of body mass than adults.

People with respiratory problems and chronic heart disease should stay inside as much as possible when smoky conditions prevail, with doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut and preferably with clean air circulating through air conditioners and/or air cleaners. Use air conditioners on the recirculation setting so outside air will not be moved into the room.

Melissa.Stedman@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on June 20, 2013.