Out-of-control Colorado wildfire threatens entire mountain town

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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High winds, high temperatures and high levels of deadwood fuel in the Rio Grande National Forest have combined to produce one of the most extreme and dangerous wildfires Colorado has seen in years.

The West Fork Complex — which is actually a confluence of three separate wildfires being fought as one — continues to grow in the southwest mountains, threatening the town of South Fork even as firefighters use bulldozers to cut a defensive fire line around the popular tourist destination.

Sparked by lightning on June 5, the blaze is zero percent contained and raging at the whim of gusty winds. More than 81,000 acres have burned and air tankers operated by the Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force Reserve have dropped a cumulative 172,955 gallons of fire retardant slurry to slow its advance through dry timber loaded with beetle-killed trees.

The fire is burning about three to four miles from South Fork, which has been evacuated of about 1,000 residents and tourists. Some were briefly escorted to their homes Tuesday to retrieve belongings left behind when a reverse-911 call earlier in the week told them to leave immediately.

The West Fork Complex is one of scores of wildfires burning in tinder-dry Colorado, where temperatures have been in the 90s for several days with no precipitation, a forecast that’s expected to continue for at least the next few days.

The only chance for rain is over the weekend. But thunderstorms also bring with them the risk of lightning and more fire.

Colorado is in the midst of a multi-year drought, in which high temperatures have allowed pine beetles to infest its lodgepole pine forests at higher altitudes than usual. Because there is no timber industry in Colorado to allow for thinning of the forests — and industries that use beetle-kill trees are still in their infancy — the forests have become jammed with dead, dry fuel that, in turn, have produced more cataclysmic fires than in the past.

Fires in these conditions often burn for months. A fire in Rocky Mountain National Park that was sparked by an illegal campfire in October burned through the winter and was only confirmed to be completely extinguished on Tuesday.

Two people have died in fires so far this year, when the recently contained Black Forest fire tore through a densely treed neighborhood near Colorado Springs.

With no containment and the U.S. Forest Service reporting “extreme fire behavior” that involves crowning flames that leap from treetop to treetop, the West Fork Complex threatens to become the worst so far. As of Wednesday, more than 1,100 personnel were fighting it.

The Denver Post reported that the blaze has cost $2.2 million so far and it’s expected to burn well throughout the summer.

Earlier this year, the Democratic-controlled state legislature passed a bill authorizing Colorado to purchase its own fleet of firefighting air tankers, but did not provide funding for the fleet.

Although the planes wouldn’t have been available to fight the current fires, Republican lawmakers who pushed for the funding point out that they will be needed for next year’s fire season. Not paying for the fleet, one lawmaker said, was the “biggest failure” of the legislative session.

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