Forest Service says the West Fork Complex Fire poses high risk to the town of South Fork

Shifting winds may save town

SOUTHFORK, Colo. - The out-of-control West Fork Fire is dangerously close to the edge of the Town of South Fork.

On Friday night, the Rio Grande County Sheriff's Office estimated the fire size at 40,000 acres.

Earlier, South Fork Police Chief James Chavez told 7NEWS that the fire was getting closer to the town.

"The fire is roughly 2 miles away,  heading in a northeasterly direction,"  he said at 5 p.m. "The fire personnel are referring to it as a 'column of fire' -- unprecedented in the size this is."

He said the winds driving the fire have been unpredictable.

"The wind has been playing games all day.  It seems like it's coming to town then a little later is seems like it blowing away," Chavez said.  "We're hoping it will keep going north and bypass all these subdivisions where homes are located."

By 7:30 p.m., the fire was still southwest of the town.

Chief Chavez said he is confident that everyone has evacuated South Fork, except for emergency and fire personnel.

Rio Grande County Sheriff's Deputy Ron Bailey told 7NEWS more than 30 fire engines and crews from throughout southern Colorado are positioned in an attempt to protect the town and aerial attacks involving helicopters and planes are ongoing at the town line.

Hand crews are having difficulty attacking the fire, Bailey said, because of the terrain.

Bailey said information from the town was coming in slowly because everyone there was exceptionally busy fighting the fire.

Fire spokeswoman Penny Bertram with the U.S. Forest Service told the Associated Press she wouldn't speculate on the likelihood of the town burning, but that it's at high risk.

Bertram said the hot, dry and windy weather along with large stands of beetle-killed trees are causing extreme fire behavior. While most fires actively burn four hours a day, this one is burning for 12.

There is a mandatory evacuation in place that includes the Town of South Fork. An evacuation shelter is located at the Del Norte High School for people and the Sky High Complex in Monte Vista for RVs and large animals.

The fire more than doubled overnight, hitting 29,911 acres by Friday morning, according to the Archuleta County Emergency Information website and 40,000 acres by Friday night.

Friday was the third straight day of red flag warnings for the area and "conditions are ideal for rapid fire spread and for the chances of any ignition source starting new fires," county officials said. 

Experts called the wildfire's eruption Thursday "unprecedented" as it made a nearly to 7-mile run in a northeasterly direction at one point.

"The fire behavior we saw yesterday was so extreme, it was undocumented and unprecedented," said Eric Norton, a fire behavior analyst for the U.S. Forest Service's National Incident Management Organization.

South Fork is in Rio Grande County between Pagosa Springs and Monte Vista. The fictional Griswold family camped in South Fork in 1983's "National Lampoon's Vacation."

--Windy Pass Fire & West Fork = West Fork Complex Fire --

The West Fork Fire in the Rio Grande National Forest is being managed along with the Windy Pass Fire that has reached within a quarter-mile of the Wolf Creek Ski Area. The two fires are being called the West Fork Complex Fire.

The Windy Pass Fire has burned 1,065 acres.  A third fire, the Papoose Fire was added to the West Fork Fire Complex on Friday.  It has burned an estimated 3,000 acres in the Papoose and Little Squaw drainages just downstream of the Rio Grande Reservoir west of Creede.

The West Fork Fire was started by lightning on June 5.  The Windy Pass Fire was started by lightning on June 13.

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