By JERI CLAUSING, Associated Press
DEL NORTE, Colo. (AP) — Crews defending resort towns, homes and cabins against a massive and erratic wildfire in Colorado's southwest mountains were looking Tuesday for a slight break after nearly a week of unrelenting winds.
Tim Foley, a fire behavior expert working the 117-square mile blaze, said officials are hoping to begin a more strategic assault on the backcountry blaze, which forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents and visitors from the summer retreat of South Fork and surrounding areas on Friday.
"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 high winds have grounded most afternoon flights and have limited where tankers and helicopters can drop retardant and water.
But a decrease in winds that have gusted to 50 miles an hour since last week is expected to give the nearly 1,000 firefighters a better chance at trying to control the fire, an arm of which officials say has advanced to within a mile-and-a-half of South Fork.
And every day that it is kept at bay, officials said, increases the odds of saving that town.
"We like our chances, said incident commander Russ Long, noting, however, that crews still have no control of the fire.
The fire did advance slightly toward South Fork on Monday, according to another incident commander, Russ Long. But it remained about two miles away. And crews were able to beat back flames threatening homes and cabins along Highway 149, between South Fork and the historic mining town of Creede.
"We had a lot of success," Long said. "Still there is a lot of uncertainty."
As of Monday night, no structures were known to have been lost.
The fire is feeding on drought-stricken, beetle-killed trees fanned by the recent hot, windy weather across much of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, where a 119-square-mile wildfire in the mountains of the Gila National Forest is expected to grow this week.
The southwestern Colorado blaze 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.
Near the headwaters of the Rio Grande, the town now has a thriving tourist industry that relies on its colorful past. On Monday, residents and tourists shopping went about business as usual as the hills on Highway 149 west of town smoldered.
The blaze is the largest in recorded history to have ever hit the typically fire-resistant Rio Grande National Forest. And no real gains are expected until the summer monsoon season brings cooler temperatures and rains, hopefully in early July.
"This is a significant fire with significant problems, and we are not going to see any significant containment until we have significant changes in the weather," Blume said.
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.
Associated Press photographer Greg Bull contributed to this report.
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