Smoke fills the sky as dawn breaks over a mountain range near South Fork,… (Gregory Bull / Associated…)
Smoke clouded the air and tourists headed for the road as a large wildfire in burned in southwestern Colorado on Saturday, though the threat to one small mountain town eased as the flames slowed.
The West Fork Complex fire, a convergence of three wildfires, has burned more than 53,000 acres. High winds and hot weather have hampered aerial attacks.
On Friday, dire warnings sounded as the flames moved within seven miles of the small tourist town of South Fork. Residents received mandatory evacuation orders and the town was deserted by 10 a.m., except for fire engines and firefighters preparing to hose off burning structures. In neighboring Del Norte, the American Red Cross opened an evacuation center at a high school.
To the relief of emergency crews, the fire stayed in place instead of continuing its march toward South Fork, said Penny Bertram, a fire information officer with the National Incident Management Organization. A horseshoe pattern caused the fire to burn into itself through dead beetle-infected pine trees.
Its progress slowed enough that the mayor of South Fork, Kenneth Brooke, allowed some residents to go back into the town to check on their businesses or retrieve medication, said Ron Bailey, a detention dispatch officer with the Rio Grande County Sheriff’s Department.
It could be several days, however, until residents are allowed to return, officials said.
A newer blaze, the Papoose fire, streaked northward Friday afternoon, growing from 2,000 acres to more than 11,000 and prompting a voluntary evacuation order in Creede, a historic mountain town. The fire is burning about 18 miles southwest of the town, Bertram said.
The flames are threatening subdivisions near the Road Canyon Reservoir and Thirty Mile Campground area. Officials shut down Highway 149 between South Fork and Creede and stationed 32 fire engines along the road.
Local officials are concerned about the exodus of tourists. In the summertime, Creede and, neighboring mountain towns see visitors pour into the numerous RV parks, resorts and campgrounds in the area, as well as summer vacation homes. Many of the tourists come from Texas and Oklahoma and are critical to the local economy.
Creede has about 400 permanent residents, but the population jumps to between 2,500 and 4,000 in the summer.
Creede Chamber of Commerce staffer Catherine Kim said the area has seen a large-scale departure of tourists in the past two days during the smoke and fire warnings. So many vehicles needed gas that Creede's only gas station had to get special permission from the state to bring a tanker through the fire barricades, she said.
“Obviously it’s a big concern for us,” Kim said. “We’re a small mountain town with one highway that runs through.”
The nearby Mountain Views RV Resort and RV Park has seen the number of guests drop by about half in the past two days, office manager Ronda White said.
“It’s more people that are not used to this area that are leaving,” she said, adding that the smoke has caused problems among elderly and retired patrons.
Many guests bolted when officials opened Highway 149 for two hours on Saturday, White said.
Twelve wildfires, including five major blazes, are burning in Colorado and have scorched about 133 square miles.
Although the threat has eased somewhat in South Fork and Creede, conditions remain dangerous for rapid fire spread and for new blazes to start, Bertram said.
In Arizona, a fire in the Prescott National Forest has consumed nearly 12 square miles. To the north, smoke from another fire that broke out Wednesday was visible from Grand Canyon National Park. No structures were immediately threatened, the Associated Press reported.
A blaze in southern New Mexico's Gila National Forest had grown to 57 square miles just as firefighters finish setting up protections around a nearby historic mining town, the AP reported.