Fire grows to 30,000 acres, public meeting held

SUN Staff

SUN Photo/ Mike Pierce The West Fork Complex fires continue to burn. The Papoose Fire, seen here to the left, is now grouped as part of the complex along with the Windy Pass and West Fork fires. SUN Photo/ Mike Pierce
The West Fork Complex fires continue to burn. The Papoose Fire, seen here to the left, is now grouped as part of the complex along with the Windy Pass and West Fork fires.

According to Ann Bond, of the U.S. Forest Service, the West Fork Complex Fire burning in Mineral County east of Pagosa Springs is now estimated at just over 30,000 acres.

There will be a public meeting in Pagosa Springs tonight, Friday June 21, at 7 p.m. at the Ross Aragon Community Center.

With the predicted weather and the volatile fuels, the fire is again expected to make significant runs. The total acreage for the West Fork Fire Complex rose from 12,710 acres Wednesday morning to 29,911 acres as of 6 a.m. Friday morning. Most of the gain in acreage was on the West Fork Fire.

Fire behavior on the West Fork fire was extreme; it made a close to seven-mile run in a northeasterly direction. Eric Norton, fire behavior analyst for the NIMO Team, said, “The fire behavior we saw yesterday was so extreme, it was undocumented and unprecedented.” The fire more than doubled in size going from 12,001 acres to close to 29,000 acres today. The fire burned in a northeasterly direction crossing the Continental Divide and burning on the ridge above Big Meadows Reservoir down to Metroz Lake. In some locations the fire is only 1/2 mile from U.S. 160. Firefighters were able to hold the fire from spreading to the south and all structures and cabins at Born’s Lake were not affected by yesterday’s fire activity.

The Windy Pass Fire only grew by about 300 acres yesterday and firefighters have been able to hold the Windy Pass Fire within the established indirect containment lines. There was a spot fire to the east of the ski area yesterday that hand crews were able to catch and extinguish.

A Type I Incident Command Team is transitioning into place on the Rio Grande National Forest to deal with fires on the east side of the Continental Divide.  U.S. 160 is still closed over Wolf Creek. Colo. 149 is closed from South Fork to Creede.  This morning, the mandatory evacuation order went out for the town of South Fork. There are shelters open and ready to accept evacuees. Transportation for those needing assistance has been pre-staged and is being coordinated through the Alamosa EOC.

The fire is continuing to move parallel to U.S. 160 toward South Fork. The fire is expected to move at one mile an hour today with the town currently six miles directly in front of the fire front. There were unconfirmed structure losses yesterday and last night. Heavy aircraft orders have been placed, but wind conditions expected today may limit use. Logistical support for the South Fork Branch will be through Alamosa until the Type I team arrives tonight.

The Papoose Fire is burning near Rio Grande Reservoir in the Little Squaw and Papoose drainages north of the Windy Pass Fire and is estimated at 1,600 acres. A pre-evacuation notice has been issued for areas along FS Road 520.  A Type I team will handle this fire as well.

Workers at Wolf Creek Ski Area are on the alert today for spotting from the Windy Pass Fire. Fire had crossed Treasure Pass, with some spotting on top of the Divide within ski area permit boundaries.

According to ski area owner Davey Pitcher, the 12 core employees at the area are on the lookout today, with Red Flag Warning winds expected again this afternoon. Engines are stationed at the ski area, with two engines at the top of the area.

“We are pretty well prepared for structure protection,” said Pitcher. “Today is a day to pay attention. The West Fork Fire is still basically on the west side of the Divide, spotting to the north of the highway. If the fire comes down the Big Meadows drainage, though, it could flank the ski area.”

According to Pitcher, firefighters are putting air attack foam tanks at the ski area for use by helicopters working the east side of the fire complex.

“Proper steps are being taken,” he said.

According to Archuleta County Sheriff Pete Gonzales, no evacuations have been ordered in the county. With prevailing winds driving the fire away from structures in the county, no Archuleta County evacuations are expected in the immediate future.

The one victim of the dry conditions fueling the fires the Fourth of July fireworks display, cancelled Thursday by the town council.

NIMO information officers Wednesday morning said there is no anticipated time for reopening the highway. Calling the complex fire behavior “crazy,” an officer said the wind and the fuels make the fire “very aggressive.”

A Red Flag Warning has been issued for today; this is the third day in a row where conditions are ideal for rapid fire spread and for the chances of any ignition source starting new fires.

UPDATE 11:45 a.m.: According to Mike Blakeman, Rio Grande National Forest spokesman, an area closure has been put into place for a portion of the RGNF. The closure extends both north and south of Forest Service Road 520 to the Continental Divide. Additionally, FS Road 520 has been closed from Stony Pass to Colo. 149.