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Wildfires blaze along western SLV

Posted: Wednesday, Jun 26th, 2013

Photo by John McEvoy A helicopter makes a water drop over the Papoose Fire at Rio Oxbow Ranch on Highway 149 mile marker 38.

By Toni Steffens-Steward and John McEvoy

SOUTH FORK —The West Fork Fire Complex continues to burn in forested areas surrounding South Fork and Creede on the western edge of the Valley.

Smoke from the three fires, Papoose, West Fork and Windy Pass, has been visible throughout the Valley and beyond for more than one week. The West Fork Fire is still a threat to the town of South Fork; Papoose is inching closer to a number of structures located in Mineral County, and the Windy Pass is closest to the Wolf Creek Ski Area.

As of Tuesday morning the fire had still not damaged any known structures and vehicles were allowed to travel along Highway 149 from South Fork to Creede on a metered basis. The cars are escorted by law enforcement personnel to ensure that drivers do not stop along the road or in any way interfere with fire traffic. This route may be interrupted at any time depending on fire conditions along the highway.

In a press briefing held on Tuesday morning it was reported that the air in the area of the West Fork Fire Complex is the cleanest it has been in days according to air quality specialist Mike Boughton from the Forest Service.

“We have installed monitoring equipment at the Divide Ranger station and will be installing more around the area within the next few days,” said Boughton. “This will allow access to data on particulate counts.”

The wind will be changing from heading in a southwesterly direction to just west as a high-pressure system moves in. “This will be like a large pair of hands holding the smoke down to the ground,” said Boughton. “Usually, the air has been clearing up about mid-morning. With this system, it may take longer.”

The best thing people can do is to leave and visit relatives out of the area, if they want cleaner air, said Boughton.

“Close your windows at night and only open them when the air is clear of smoke,” said Boughton.

“It would be ideal if everyone had a HEPA air filtration system for the whole house,” said Boughton. “If you only have a small unit with limited resources, put it in one room to clean it.”

People with respiratory problems should stay inside, and even people who are healthy should reduce physical activities outside.

Adam Mendonca, from the Rio Grande Forest Service, said, “Firefighters have been doing good work around 4UR Ranch and Masonic Park.” He said,“I am very proud of all the good work they are doing prepping structures to protect them.”

The Papoose Fire is burning mostly in the wilderness, but is slowly moving toward the Rio Grande Reservoir, which is an important water resource for the Valley. “Work that is being done on the dam may need to stop,” said Mendonca. “There is no fire near the reservoir now, but if it does get close we are concerned about ash getting in the reservoir, as well as into the Rio Grande flow.”

Mendonca said the Forest Service will be in the area to rehabilitate and reduce the impact of the fires. They are monitoring the water levels, debris and sediment of the reservoir. Mendonca said the Papoose Fire is the big focus now because of the many high value structures in the area close to the fire.

The fire is still 10 to 15 miles from the town of Creede, but many summer visitors and others concerned with smoky conditions have left town. Some have described the town as resembling Creede in the middle of winter. Many area businesses have remained open including the Creede Repertory Theatre, restaurants and lodges.

Businesses in South Fork are closed as a part of the overall evacuation order. There is much concern about the area’s economy, but law enforcement and fire officials' primary concern is the safety of the public and the firefighters. Some business owners have been allowed to return on a limited basis to take care of urgent needs. Blume said he does not see the South Fork evacuation being lifted in the near future.

“We have firefighters everywhere and are not ignoring South Fork,” said Mendonca. “It is still an area of major concern.”

Pete Blume said the wind direction would be shifting to the west on Tuesday, which will cause a lot of fuels that had not burned before to be exposed. There have been crews working with bulldozers to increase the fire line near South Fork.

Blume said that in most places the fire is three to four miles from South Fork at the closest. “The dozer line is at 1.5 miles and the fire is not there,” said Blume.

There are now more than 1,300 personnel involved fighting the fire from the incident commanders on down to the firefighters on the ground and in the air.

The first fire in the complex began on June 5, and all three fires are being attributed to lightning strikes in the area. As of Tuesday the fires were zero percent contained and had grown to a total of 79,182 acres.

Resources being utilized to fight the fire include, seven Type 1 hand crews, 30 Type 2 hand crews, 68 engines, one dozer, 14 water tenders, local law enforcement and overhead personnel. National Guard crews were brought in to help tend road blocks and to provide additional security.

Evacuees have relocated all around the Valley from areas just outside of South Fork to campgrounds around the Great Sand Dunes National Park. A Red Cross shelter was established at the Del Norte High School where daily meals and other needs are taken care of by volunteers. There are many businesses and organizations working to provide goods and monetary donations to the evacuees and volunteers serving during the crisis.

More information on the fire complex, evacuation status and road closures can be obtained by calling the West Fork Fire Complex East Zone information center at 719-569-4149 or emailing westforkfire.eastzone@gmail.com. Informational meetings are also being held daily for the public at the Red Cross Shelter in Del Norte each day at 9 a.m.

Valley Publishing continues to update the southforktines.com site with new information as it is released and verified. Updates can also be found in the inciweb.org site and at riograndecounty.com.

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