In this Thursday, June 20, 2013 photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service, wildfires fires approach the town of South Fork, Colo. The town of about 400 people was evacuated Friday morning, June 21, 2013. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service, Penny Bertram)
DEL NORTE, Colo. — A massive wildfire threatening a tourist region in southwestern Colorado has grown to nearly 60 square miles, but officials said today that the erratic blaze had slowed and they were optimistic they could protect the town of South Fork.
The fire’s rapid advance prompted more than 400 evacuations Friday, and it could be days before people are allowed back into their homes, cabins and RV parks, fire crew spokeswoman Laura McConnell said.
Officials, meanwhile, closely monitored an arm of the blaze moving toward the neighboring town of Creede.
“We were very, very lucky,” said Rio Grande County Commissioner Carla Shriver. “We got a free pass yesterday.”
McConnell said no structures had been lost and the fire was still about 5 miles from the town.
The blaze had been fueled by dry, hot, windy weather and a stand of dead trees, killed by a beetle infestation. But the fire’s spread had slowed by early today after the flames hit a healthy section of forest. Fire crews remained alert as more hot, dry and windy weather was forecast.
The wildfire, a complex of three blazes, remains a danger, officials said.
“The fire is very unpredictable,” Shriver told evacuees at Del Norte High School, east of the fire. “They are saying they haven’t quite seen one like this in years. There is so much fuel up there.”
Smoke permeated the air today in Del Norte, where a Red Cross shelter was set up for evacuees. Anticipating the mandatory South Fork evacuation would last for days, the Red Cross promised more supplies and portable showers.
New fire crews, meanwhile, descended from other areas to join more than 32 fire engines stationed around South Fork, with hoses and tankers at the ready. Firefighters also worked to move potential fuel, such as lawn furniture, propane tanks and wood piles, away from homes and buildings.
The town of Creede’s 300 residents were under voluntary evacuation orders.