Despite being given highest priority, West Fork Fire Complex not likely to be contained anytime soon

Wind Monday may bedevil firefighters

DEL NORTE, Colo. - Despite being the highest priority wildfire in the nation, a massive complex of three wildfires in southwestern Colorado is not likely to be contained anytime soon.

"Most everything we ask for we're likely to get," West Fork Fire Complex Incident Commander Pete Blume explained at a briefing Sunday night. "So we place orders at various times, usually every day, for those resources that we need to add to the fight based on what's appropriate. Sometimes its hand crews, sometimes its aviation, sometimes its [fire] engines."

"You can't ask to be in a better position when trying to put out a fire," Blume said.

To date, the efforts against the fires have cost about $2.2 million and employed the efforts of 895 people. The price tag is undoubtedly going to grow as resources are called in.

"To make any real progress with an air attack you need to follow it up with ground crews," Blume said.

Ground crews have had difficulty, however, due to the rugged terrain.

The complex includes the West Fork, Papoose and Windy Pass fires. Their collective perimeters are estimated at 76,000 acres, an increase of about 5,800 acres from estimates earlier Sunday.

Blume said he believed the perimeter didn't grow much throughout the day because the primary fire activity was on islands of un-burnt fuel in the interior of the fire zone.

"We had very little advance of the perimeter of the fire either on the Wolf Creek side or the Papoose side," Blume said. "Every day we get something like that is one more day that gives us an edge to get some work done on the ground."

Blume said firefighters are in a "defensive mode," and concerned with working to reinforce the fire lines. That work will include back burning to reinforce the fire lines as firefighters struggle to prevent the fires from spotting forward as winds increase.

"We actually may have a windier day tomorrow than we had today," Blume said. "Now that the interior is burned out, we may see the perimeter grow some more."

Fire officials said Sunday that they are still optimistic they can protect the town of South Fork, however pre-evacuation notices were in place for West Fork Road and along East Fork Road.  

The fire's rapid advance prompted the evacuation of thousands of summer visitors and South Fork's 400 permanent residents Friday, and it could be days before people are allowed back into their homes, cabins and RV parks, fire crew spokeswoman Laura McConnell said. South Fork Mayor Kenneth Brooke estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 people were forced to flee.

"We've got a really big incident going here, we've had a big incident going for a few days," said Deputy Forest Supervisor Adam Mendonca.

The evacuation of South Fork could last "maybe" five to seven days, Blume said.

"I wish I could give you a more optimistic view but I have to be honest," said Blume.  "This is not going to be a short-term event."

The Papoose Fire has burned close to Hwy-149, but has stayed west of the highway and had not crossed it.  It is the fire closest to the town of Creede, Colo., a town of 300 permanent residents, which is northwest of South Fork.

"We were very, very lucky," said Rio Grande County Commissioner Carla Shriver. "We got a free pass yesterday."

Creede is currently not under an evacuation order.

"This event is going to continue, and as we continue we're going to continue to work with the local communities," Mendonca said.

As of Sunday night, there was no estimate on containment for the fires in this complex.

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