As of Wednesday morning, the West Fork Complex fires had burned a total of 81,331 acres, making it the second largest active fire in the United States.
According to InciWeb, the only larger active fire is the Silver Fire, located in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. That fire was listed at 81,363 acres on Tuesday. No updated acreage was available Wednesday.
The largest of the fires in the West Fork Complex, the West Fork Fire, began June 5, from a lightning strike. On Wednesday, it was listed at a size of 54,714 acres.
The next largest, the Papoose Fire, was listed at 25,236 acres as of Wednesday morning.
The smallest of the fires is the Windy Pass Fire, which is burning west of Wolf Creek Ski Area and totaled 1,381 acres as of Wednesday.
After days of impressive fire activity, fire crews may be catching a break.
Tuesday was the last of six straight days of Red Flag Warnings, which indicate large fire growth potential, atmospheric instability, high winds and low relative humidities, according to Eric Morgan, fire behavior analyst.
“It means it makes suppression actions very difficult and complex, in addition to the complex terrain and fuel conditions,” Morgan said.
But now, Morgan said, the forecast through Sunday is calling for diminished winds with the arrival of a high pressure system, though an increase in temperatures is forecasted.
“Without wind, any amount of moisture or cloud cover is going to slowly contribute to the decrease in fire activity,” Morgan said.
The high pressure system also means smoke will be slower to disperse from the valleys in the mornings.
Until monsoonal moisture hits the area, crews will work to keep the fires away from identified public values, such as towns and Wolf Creek Ski Area.
Parts of the fire remain inaccessible to fire crews, Morgan said, and the sheer size of the fire means crews are unable to cover every part of the fires.
Morgan said the break in the weather, “Allows us the opportunity to take action on certain points of the fire based on the values at risk, with the primary objectives being firefighter and public safety.”
It also means a break from the pyrocumulus plumes seen filling up the sky every afternoon.
“What drove the pyrocumulus was wind and terrain alignment contributed to extremely fast fire growth driven by bug-killed spruce fuel,” Morgan said. “And, essentially, the fire ran out of continuous fuel out ahead of the fire.”
While the larger picture is looking more favorable with improved weather, portions of the fires remain active.
On Tuesday night, the northwest flank of the Papoose Fire was increasingly active, burning down into Crooked Creek. Firefighters are working to protect structures in the area.
Aerial resources are working to keep the eastern side of the West Fork Fire north of U.S. 160, and crews are continuing work on a dozer line to minimize the chance of the fire reaching South Fork.
Crews are also continuing to provide structure protection near Lake Humphreys and Metroz Lake and on both sides of Colo. 149.
Minimal fire growth took place on the western portion of the West Fork Fire and on the Windy Pass Fire, with some flare-ups in pockets of unburned beetle kill and continued smoldering ground fires in the heavy dead fuels.
Tuesday, there was spotty fire activity on the south flank of the West Fork Fire above Born’s Lake and the fire made a short run, burning in bug-killed spruce up a drainage interior to the fire perimeter.
Structure protection sprinklers have been installed at Bruce Spruce Ranch and crews worked Wednesday to evaluate and implement any structure protection needs for additional structures on West Fork Road . Additionally, portions of the sprinkler system at Born’s Lake were run Tuesday to increase humidity and fuel moisture around the Born’s Lake structures.
There is no known structure loss from any of the complex fires.
For further updates on the fires, see www.PagosaSUN.com.
Wolf Creek Ski Area
Despite the Windy Pass Fire burning near Wolf Creek Ski Area, work continues on a new lift at the ski area, albeit a couple weeks behind.
Structure protection teams are still staged at the ski area, and owner Davey Pitcher understands the situation and the need for fire to take its course.
“We’re comfortable with the idea of fuel reduction taking place, and beetles are being killed by the fire,” Pitcher said.
And while the fire remains close to the ski area’s permit area, there has been no spotting into the permit area in the last few days.
“If they can manage the Windy Pass fire until the monsoonal flow, without the fire endangering the highway, we support it,” Pitcher said.
Noting that spruce beetles have killed about 70 percent of trees near the ski area, Pitcher said, “Fuel reduction on Wolf Creek Pass, if not addressed, we’ll have the potential of a West Fork Fire in the foreseeable future.”
A public meeting has been scheduled for Pagosa Springs for Saturday, June 29.
The meeting will take place at 1 p.m. at the Ross Aragon Community Center.
The last major fire in the South Fork area came in 2002, as several fires raged throughout the state.
The fire near South Fork that year, the Million Fire, began in early June, burning 9,346 acres by its end.
That same summer, the Missionary Ridge Fire began around the same time, about 12 miles north of Durango in the Animas Valley. Later that same month, the Valley Fire began on the west side of the valley. Between the fires, a total of 70,662 acres and 56 homes were burned.
Other large fires in the state that summer included the Trinidad Complex, which also burned in June, totaling 33,000 acres.
The largest of the fires in Colorado, the Hayman Fire, began the same month just west of Denver in the Pike and San Isabel national forests, burning a staggering 137,760 acres.
Last year, Pagosa Country became accustomed to smoke and the presence of fire crews with the Little Sand Fire in the Piedra area. That fire, also started by lightning, burned 24,450 acres by July 3, 2012, before monsoonal moisture drenched the flames.