The Ottumwa Courier

AP National

June 23, 2013

Firefighter optimistic they can save Colorado town

DEL NORTE, Colo. (AP) — A massive wildfire threatening a tourist region in southwestern Colorado has grown to nearly 60 square miles, but officials said Saturday that the erratic blaze had slowed and they were optimistic they could protect the town of South Fork.

The fire's rapid advance prompted the evacuation of hundreds of summer visitors and the town's 400 permanent residents Friday, and it could be days before people are allowed back into their homes, cabins and RV parks, fire crew spokeswoman Laura McConnell said. South Fork Mayor Kenneth Brooke estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 people were forced to flee.

Some business owners were being allowed back into South Fork during the day Saturday to tie up issues left unattended in the rush to leave.

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 Saturday morning 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."

Winds picked up Saturday afternoon and a heavy black again permeated the air 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.

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