West Fork Complex fires: One year later

Staff Writer

On July 10, 2013 — one year ago today — southwest Colorado, namely the communities surrounding Wolf Creek Pass, were still reeling from the West Fork Complex fires, which totaled 109,100 acres as the day began.

At that point, the complex — made up of the West Fork, Papoose and Windy Pass fires — was 19 percent contained, and the West Fork Fire had been burning since June 5.

Luckily, however, the fire saw no more significant growth and monsoonal moisture soon lent a helping hand to fire personnel.

Chronology of a complex

Between June 5 and July 10, 2013, the fires grew, forcing the closure of national forest land and U.S. 160 over Wolf Creek Pass, evacuations, heavy smoke and more. Following is a brief chronology of the major events over that span of time. All acreages listed are for the morning of each day.

• June 5: The West Fork Fire begins west of the Continental Divide near Born’s Lake northeast of Pagosa Springs, in an area difficult to access. The cause is lightning and the size is estimated at one-quarter acre.

• June 13: A Type 3 incident commander arrives and additional resources are ordered. The Windy Pass Fire begins from a lightning strike 12 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs, near the Windy Pass Trail.

West Fork Fire: 25 acres. Windy Pass Fire: Unknown.

• June 14: Smoke begins to be visible from U.S. 160 and the West Fork Trail is closed. Additional resources are ordered. Thirteen backpackers are safely evacuated from the West Fork Trail and Rainbow Hot Springs.

West Fork: 150 acres. Windy Pass: unknown.

• June 15: An additional 20-person crew is ordered for the Windy Pass Fire. The fire grows to 35 acres by mid afternoon. More than 65 personnel are working each fire.

West Fork: 470 acres. Windy Pass: 5-6 acres.

• June 16: The two fires are now being managed as the West Fork Complex. A Type 2 National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) team is ordered. Falls Creek and Wolf Creek roads, Treasure Mountain Trail and Windy Pass Trail are closed.

West Fork: over 1,747 acres. Windy Pass: 108 acres.

• June 17: A portion of the Continental Divide Trail is closed, as in the Lobo Overlook atop Wolf Creek Pass. More than 200 people are assigned to the complex.

West Fork: over 2,500. Windy Pass: 129 acres.

• June 19: Area fire restrictions take effect. Red Flag Warnings begin and a large smoke plume is visible. Fire activity is extreme.

Complex: 4,070 acres.

• June 20: Pre-evacuation orders are given to residents and visitors on West Fork Road and private landowners in the East Fork drainage.

A spot fire from the West Fork Fire lands in the Rio Grande National Forest and the fire is established. Areas within the RGNF are closed.

Several evacuations, including from the top of Wolf Creek Pass to the town limits of South Fork, and pre-evacuations are announced.

U.S. 160 over Wolf Creek Pass is closed.

Complex: 12,710 acres. West Fork: 12,001 acres. Windy Pass: 709 acres.

• June 21: The town of South Fork is put under mandatory evacuation. Colo. 149 between South Fork and Creede is closed. Over 30 engines are stationed in South Fork.

The Papoose Fire grows (start date unknown) from about 2,000 acres to more than 11,000 acres.

Complex: 29,911 acres. West Fork: almost 29,000 acres. Windy Pass: around 1,000 acres.

• June 22: The Papoose Fire is now being managed by the complex.

Complex: 53,544 acres. West Fork: 42,516 acres. Windy Pass: 937 acres. Papoose: more than 11,000 acres.

• June 23: A Type 1 incident management team arrives on the east side of the fire.

Complex size: 70,262 acres. West Fork: 49,862 acres. Windy Pass: 987 acres. Papoose: 19,413 acres.

• June 24: Members of the Colorado National Guard are called in for help.

Complex: 75,150 acres.

• June 25: Over 1,300 personnel are currently assigned to the fires.

Complex: 79,182 acres. West Fork: 54,222 acres. Windy Pass: 1,355 acres. Papoose: 23,605 acres.

• June 27: Heavy smoke moves into Pagosa Springs.

Complex: 83,004 acres. West Fork: 55,118 acres. Windy Pass: 1,403 acres. Papoose: 26,483 acres.

• June 28: Most residents of South Fork are allowed to return home. Residents west of Colo. 149 and the Rio Grande River remain evacuated.

Complex: 90,056 acres. West Fork: 56,373 acres. Windy Pass: 1,411 acres. Papoose: 32,272 acres.

• June 29: U.S. 160 over Wolf Creek Pass and Colo. 149 reopen. Rain falls in the area.

Complex: 90,806 acres. West Fork: 56,373 acres. Windy Pass: 1,411 acres. Papoose: 33,022 acres.

Containment: 2 percent.

• June 30: Residents of Wagon Wheel Gap are moved from evacuation to a pre-evacuation notice. Rain falls in the area.

Complex: 92,176 acres. West Fork: 56,488 acres. Windy Pass: 1,416 acres. Papoose: 34,272 acres.

Containment: 2 percent.

• July 1: Evacuations for communities in Mineral County are lifted.

Complex: 93,776 acres. West Fork: 56,517 acres. Windy Pass: 1,417 acres. Papoose: 35,842 acres.

Containment: 4 percent.

• July 3: The Papoose fire grows more than 12,000 acres this day.

Complex: 97,823 acres. West Fork: 59,895 acres. Windy Pass: 1,417 acres. Papoose: 36,511 acres.

Containment: 7 percent.

• July 4: A Type 2  incident management team takes control of the West Zone of the complex.

Complex: 106,637 acres. West Fork: 56,568 acres. Windy Pass: 1,417 acres. Papoose: 48,652 acres.

Containment: 16 percent.

• July 6: A Type 1 incident management team assumes command of the East Zone.

Complex: 110,028 acres. West Fork: 59,959 acres. Windy Pass: 1,417 acres. Papoose: 48,652 acres.

Containment: 25 percent.

• July 7: Significant amounts of moisture fall on areas of the West Fork Fire. It is confirmed that a pump house was destroyed by the fire. It is the only known structure loss.

Complex: 110,028 acres. West Fork: 59,959 acres. Windy Pass: 1,417 acres. Papoose: 48,652 acres.

• July 8: Several communities are removed from mandatory evacuation, while several remain evacuated.

Complex: 110,405 acres. West Fork: 59,932 acres. Windy Pass: 1,417 acres. Papoose: 49,056 acres.

Containment: 19 percent.

• July 10: Additional evacuations are lifted.

Complex: 109,100 acres. West Fork: 58,576 acres. Windy Pass: 1,417 acres. Papoose: 49,107 acres.

Containment: 19 percent.

A year later

Now, a year later, the blackened scars on the landscape remain, but the longterm effects of the complex fires are only beginning to show, and more effects will appear over time.

Last week, officials from several agencies toured a portion of the burn area from the West Fork Fire with the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership (SJFHP).

Among the officials on that tour was Steve Hartvigsen, forester of the San Juan National Forest. After the tour, Hartvigsen relayed some of the observations made about the fire area to The SUN.

The fire provides a unique opportunity, Hartvigsen noted, both because it burned a year after the Little Sand Fire (which occurred north of Pagosa Springs), allowing for comparisons, and because it essentially broke the mold — the beetle kill, due to the environment it burned in.

The fire was large-scale and burned primarily in spruce and fir, but was also in an area with a large population of beetle-kill trees, which provided a different type of fuel source than is traditionally seen.

Because of that beetle kill, Hartvigsen noted, the West Fork Fire burned much more intensely than the Little Sand Fire did the previous year.

During the Little Sand Fire, about 15 percent of the area burned at a moderate to high severity, compared with one-third of the area burned during the West Fork Fire.

Where the West Fork Fire was most intense, it consumed or killed most of the conifers and understory vegetation, Hartvigsen noted, while in areas of large aspen stands, the fire burned around the stand and reached in, but the inside of the stand appeared untouched.

It also remains to be seen how the understory will react, with early indications that aspen are sprouting not only from existing root systems, but also from seeds since the tree’s competition is gone.

A fire behaviorist on the tour also noted, Hartvigsen reported, that the fire moved from the crowns of trees down to the forest floor — the opposite of what is more often seen.

But, despite the intensity and size of the fire, Hartvigsen noted that the area burned by the fire is rather small when compared to the area of beetle kill in the area of Wolf Creek Pass — showing how great the spruce beetle outbreak is.

Hartvigsen also noted several observations about how the fire affected local wildlife, which were explained by a biologist on the tour. Hartvigsen said there is little indication of mortality among large ungulates that can move (such as deer and elk), though smaller mammals and birds were likely consumed by the fire.

Hartvigsen relayed that there also appear to be no indications of mortality among the lynx population in the area, with the local populations apparently adjusting and shifting out of areas where their prey base is declining.

For more information on the tour of the burn area, see related article in this issue of The SUN.

A landscape, changed

Though the effects of the fire are only beginning to show, it is clear that the landscape in the area of the burns will be different for a long time.

Hartvigsen noted that the intense fire, helped by the beetle kill, wiped out areas of spruce and, because spruce seed does not carry very far, there are now large areas with no seed source.

What that means is that there may now be more meadows across the landscape, with it taking several generations of trees to mature and spread seed back into those areas.

Therefore, Hartvigsen estimated, it could take 200 to 600 years for those areas to again be forested environment.

Accessing the burn area

Hartvigsen warned that anyone visiting the burn area should be cognizant of the surroundings, as the danger of falling trees greatly increases after fire — especially on windy days, when travel into the burn areas is discouraged.

Much of the burn area is easier to see and access from the west side of Wolf Creek Pass, such as from Big Meadow Road, which, from the Pagosa side, is just beyond the tunnel. On that road, the burn area is accessible by traveling beyond Shaw Lake and Lake Fork.