DEL NORTE, Colo. (AP) – This is what counts as good news in Colorado’s wildfire season: a breezy day but at least not three straight hours of winds blowing at 25 mph or more.
Firefighters battling the massive and erratic West Fork Complex Fire in the state’s southwestern mountains got a bit of a break Tuesday, with forecasters calling for winds below the threshold for a red flag warning after nearly a week of winds gusting to 50 mph.
Some gusts are still possible in the afternoon, and hot and dry weather should still keep the 124-square-mile fire active.
“We’re out of red flag, but I can’t say we’re a lot better off,” incident commander Pete Blume said. “It’s not exactly like great fire weather, but I guess we should count our blessings every time the wind drops a little bit.”
The fire is 3 to 4 miles from South Fork, Blume said. More than 1,000 residents and summer visitors were evacuated from the town and surrounding areas Friday.
Fire crews have used bulldozers to build lines around South Fork to slow the fire should it get closer, but Blume said protecting the town is still a concern.
Large wildfires are also burning elsewhere in the Southwest.
A wildfire in southern New Mexico’s Gila National Forest has grown to 125 square miles and is expected to keep expanding. In Arizona, crews hope to have the 10.5-square-mile Doce Fire near Prescott fully contained soon.
In Colorado, firefighters are hoping for a major change in the weather – the arrival of the summer monsoon season and its afternoon thunderstorms – to help control the fire. Still, every day the fire is kept at bay near South Fork, the odds of saving the town increases.
Tim Foley, a fire behavior expert working on the blaze, said officials are hoping to begin a more strategic assault on the backcountry blaze.
“We’re going from extreme (winds) to very high, basically,” Foley said. “So it’s not like it’s going to be a piece of cake.”
The red flag winds have grounded most afternoon flights and have limited where tankers and helicopters can drop retardant and water.
Crews have been able to beat back flames threatening homes and cabins along Highway 149, between South Fork and the historic mining town of Creede.
No structures are known to have been lost from the fire, which has been fed by drought-stricken, beetle-killed trees.
It started June 5 with a lightning strike in a rugged, remote area of the San Juan Mountains, west of the Continental Divide. A second lightning strike sparked a fire east of the divide. The two then joined, making a fast run Thursday and Friday at popular tourist areas, including South Fork and the Wolf Creek Ski Area.
A third lightning strike, meantime, sparked another fire to the west, creating what is now called the West Fork complex, the largest and most intense to ever hit this area, Blume said. That fire was moving north but was about 10 miles from Creede.
About a dozen fires burned elsewhere in Colorado, including a nearly 21-square-mile wildfire near the southern Colorado town of Walsenburg that was 50 percent contained.
– By JERI CLAUSING, Associated Press
Associated Press photographer Greg Bull contributed to this report.
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