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Fire rages, Colo. town braces for long evacuation

Published: Monday, June 24, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
Smoke fills the sky as dawn breaks over a mountain range Saturday near South Fork, Colo. A massive wildfire threatening a tourist region in southwestern Colorado has grown to nearly 60 square miles, but officials said Saturday that the erratic blaze had slowed and they were optimistic they could protect the town of South Fork.

DEL NORTE, Colo. – A colossal wildfire near a popular summer retreat in southern Colorado continues to be driven by winds and fueled by dead trees in a drought-stricken area, authorities said Sunday.

The weather has prevented fire crews from making progress on the blaze, which grew overnight to 108 square miles, up from 100 on Saturday. The speed with which the fire has spread is exceptional: It was just below 50 square miles Friday evening.

No structures have been lost in the fire, and no injuries have been reported.

It is doubtful fire crews could establish any containment lines until there’s a break in the weather, possibly Tuesday, officials said. They remained optimistic they can protect the town, however.

As of Sunday, officials firefighters remained focused on protecting South Fork, the Wolf Creek ski area and homes along Highway 149.

Crews hoped to get aircraft up to drop water over the fire before afternoon winds of 30 to 40 miles an hour returned Sunday. Pete Blume, a commander with the Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Command Team, said the wildfire is the worst ever known to hit the Rio Grande National Forest.

“It’s not typical to have these kinds of fires here,” said Blume. “But beetle kill and drought is also not the norm.”

Firefighters are hoping for a break in the high winds as well as the anticipated July monsoons to help them fight back the flames. Until then, Blume said, “with that much beetle kill and drought we could have every resource in the country here and still not put in a containment line.”

Still, fire officials believe portions of the blaze will likely burn all summer in forested, nonresidential areas, with full extinguishment probably months away.

The lightning-sparked blaze started June 5, but its rapid advance Friday prompted the evacuation of hundreds of visitors and the town’s 400 permanent residents.

Residents and tourists were settling in for a long wait before they can return to their homes, cabins and RV parks.

“They just said they had no idea how long it would be before we could back in South Fork,” said Mike Duffy, who owns the South Fork Lodge.

Duffy said he and his wife, Mary, were able to get their personal possessions before fleeing fast-advancing flames that officials initially feared would overtake the town. But with the fire still within three miles of South Fork, they are worried about the long-term impact of a prolong evacuation and news reports about the fire raging around the tourism-dependent town.

Summer visitors include many retirees from Texas and Oklahoma who come to the mountains to flee the heat.

South Fork Mayor Kenneth Brooke estimates that between 1,000 to 1,500 people had to flee, including the summer visitors and permanent residents.

More than 600 firefighters were battling the blaze, and more are coming every day. They also focused on newest arm of the fire as it crept through beetle kill toward the historic mining town of Creede, the last silver boom town in Colorado before the industry went bust in the late 1800s.

Elsewhere in Colorado, about a dozen fires also continued to burn. Firefighters were making progress on a 19-square-mile wildfire near Walsenburg in southern Colorado. The fire was 10 percent contained.

And a wildfire in foothills about 30 miles southwest of Denver was expected to be fully contained Sunday evening. That fire burned 511 acres and forced 100 people to leave their homes.

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