West Fork Fire Complex officials: Wind conditions expected to improve Tuesday and Wednesday

Fires burning near Creede, South Fork, Wolf Creek

SOUTH FORK, Colo. - Winds that have foiled firefighters working against the three fires in the West Fork Complex are expected to diminish Tuesday and Wednesday, offering firefighters a ray of hope.

The West Fork Complex is comprised of the West Fork Fire, the Papoose Fire and the Windy Pass Fire -- three fires burning near highways 149 and 160 between Creede, South Fork and the Wolf Creek Ski Area.

The trio of fires in Southern Colorado is currently the most threatening in the state and the one considered the highest priority in the country. It is burning in a rugged landscape covered by 80 percent beetle killed trees.

The latest size estimate for the fire complex is 75,150 acres, which includes the 52,979 acres of the West Fork Fire. There is no estimate on containment of any of the fires.

Because of that, he said, the northern edge of the Papoose Fire was the most active part of the complex Monday.

The high winds limited how much air support could safely be used to assist firefighters on the ground.

"We were really limited by the weather today," said Russ Long, an operations section chief for the team managing the fire.

Tim Foley, a fire behavior analyst for the team managing the fire, said that the fires have been propelled forward by winds from the southwest. Monday, those winds reached sustained speeds of 35 miles per hour and gusted up to 50 mph over the Papoose Fire.

Both Foley and Long were optimistic about what the weather has in store for firefighters on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"We're finally going to get a break in the weather starting tonight," said Foley.

Foley reported at the Monday evening briefing that he expects the winds to be reduced Tuesday and Wednesday. Winds will also shift to blowing out of the west.

"The problem with a little bit of a wind shift though is that areas that had been sheltered from the wind when it was a southwest wind might be exposed to it," Foley said.

Despite the challenges posed by the weather Monday, Long was able to report at the 9 p.m. briefing that firefighters assigned to structure protection around the perimeter had been successful.

At the Papoose Fire along Highway 149, firefighters are doing point protection behind certain homes and structures.

"[We were] attacking the fire as it came into those areas," Blume said. "We were very successful, we did not lose a single home."

The West Fork Fire did make some advance toward the town of South Fork, but Long reported the most significant growth was seen at the Papoose Fire. He estimated the fire is one and a half or two miles away from South Fork.

Over the weekend, firefighters were able to build a two mile bulldozer line above the tourist town of South Fork.

"It's certainly not at the point where we could call it a control line, but it’s the beginning of something that will give us a true anchor point to work with should that fire start to advance on South Fork," incident commander Pete Blume said Monday.

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.

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

Creede is currently not under an evacuation order.

895 fire personnel are assigned to the complex of fires. Of those, 550 are assigned to east zone of West Fork Fire.

The reprieve from the wind for those firefighters may not last past Wednesday. Long reported that Thursday and Friday could bring dry thunderstorms with erratic winds.