DEL NORTE, Colo. —
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 several miles from the historic mining town of Creede. Near the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, the town now has a thriving tourist industry that relies on its colorful past.
In Creede on Monday, residents and tourists shopping went about business as usual. West of town, on Highway 149, hills smoldered above homes where firefighters worked to contain the blaze.
Such larger and longer-burning fires are far from unusual in the drought- and beetle-stricken West. The Rio Grande Forest, for example, had another dry winter. More than half of its hundreds of thousands of acres of mature spruce trees have been killed by beetles, turning the usually fire resistant trees into tinder, Blume said.
Crews in Colorado also are being challenged by the high altitude, which adds to the danger and complexity of launching air assaults in smoke and high winds, said Larry Trapp, a branch director of air operations with Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Command working the east side of Continental Divide. Wolf Creek's summit is 11,904 feet; South Fork's elevation is 8,208 feet. Some peaks in the Rio Grande Forest surpass 13,000 feet.
Among the air resources on the way, he said, is a helicopter with infrared technology that can fly through the smoke to map power lines above the tree line. That will allow more tankers to take to the sky to drop retardant on the planes, Trapp said.
About a dozen fires burned elsewhere in Colorado, including a 20-square-mile wildfire near the southern Colorado town of Walsenburg that was 15 percent contained.