South Fork still stands

West Fork Fire Complex grows to 53,544 acres

SOUTH FORK, Colo. - The southwest Colorado mountain hamlet of South Fork, threatened by a massive 53,544-acre forest fire that burned to within 7 miles of the town, was still standing Saturday morning.

South Fork Police Chief James Chavez told ABC News, "We're still here."

Chavez said "nothing had breached the town" but that a line of firefighters and equipment were making a dramatic stand on the edge of town to try and save it, should the wildfire approach.

There are no reports of structures lost in the fire, according to USFS spokeswoman Laura McConnell.  The fire has moved mostly north and east, according to McConnell. 

Most of the fire activity on Friday was a result of the two heads of the fire burning together. This pulled the eastern flank of the fire toward the north. Structure protection will continue along the Highway 160 corridor. Firefighters were able to hold the fire from spreading to the south. Additional Resources have been assigned to the West Fork Fire including 2 strike teams.

Large air tankers were called in for the first time Friday to assist, but they were grounded mid-afternoon because of strong wind gusts. Two DC-10 jets, capable of dropping large amounts of water or slurry were ready to be called into action to fight the flames.

Air resources will be used as conditions allow, McConnell said Saturday.

On Friday, it was feared the town would be overrun by the South Fork Fire, part of a trio of blazes dubbed "The South Fork Fire Complex" by the U.S. Forest Service.

The 65-square-mile fire, started on June 5 by lightning on the opposite side of the Continental Divide, crossed the Divide and roared down the toward the town at the foot of Wolf Creek Pass.  However, changing winds kept the flames from getting to within 2 to 3 miles of the town on Friday evening.

During a 9 a.m. news conference on Saturday, officials said a huge influx of firefighting resources were expected in the coming days.  A red flag warning -- indicating very dry conditions that could fuel explosive fire behavior -- was in effect again on Saturday.

U.S. Highway 160 over Wolf Creek Pass remained closed Saturday morning, as did Highway 149.  The fire had come within a half-mile of Highway 160 in several places, officials said.  The chances of Wolf Creek Pass opening to traffic this weekend were "pretty low," officials said.

The Wolf Creek Ski Area, near the top of Wolf Creek Pass, was not burned, although the fire did reach the perimeter of the leased property.

The West Fork Fire Complex is comprised of three fires in close proximity: the West Fork Fire, the smaller Windy Pass Fire and the 20,000-acre Papoose Fire.  Officials said the fires were "acting very differently."

The Papoose Fire is active and burning in different pine fuel sources. The activity there is also decreasing, due to changing fuel types in the forest. Retardant drops have been utilized in those areas. However, wind remains a challenge, officials with Rio Grande County said.

Smoke from the complex of fires rose thousands and feet into the air, visible from as far away as Taos, New Mexico, and drifted hundreds of miles to the northeast, almost into Kansas.  The smoke plume was so big it could easily be seen by weather satellites.

A health advisory was issued Friday evening for residents in Archuleta County, because of the degraded air quality from smoke.

Although South Fork is home to 400 full-time residents, it draws tens of thousands of summer tourists.  Everyone had to evacuate the town early Friday, as a huge wall of flames moved closer and threatened to overrun the town.

"We waited until about two in the afternoon when I could start seeing ash falling on my deck and I decided to get on out," South Fork resident Wayne Edelman told 7NEWS.

Evacuees moved east to nearby Del Norte and to Alamosa, where the Walmart parking lot was filled with RVs from evacuated residents and tourists.

"The town is going to be fine, they won't let that town go, they won't," said Rachel Davie who works in South Fork.

South Fork was immortalized in the 1983 National Lampoon movie "Vacation" where the fictional Griswold family spent the night at a local campground.

Alternate route over Wolf Creek between Alamosa and Pagosa Springs is U.S. 285 to Colorado Highway 17 (Cumbres/La Manga passes) to U.S. 84 to Pagosa Springs.

An alternate route between Saguache and Durango is Colorado Highway 114 to U.S. 50 to U.S. 550.

Mail Delivery: Due to emergency evacuations, all South Fork mail will be held at the Del Norte Post Office, 590 Columbia St.