400 flee Colo. tourist town ahead of massive wildfire

2013-06-22T00:00:00Z 2013-06-22T15:35:37Z 400 flee Colo. tourist town ahead of massive wildfireThe Associated Press The Associated Press
June 22, 2013 12:00 am  • 

DEL NORTE, Colo. - A massive wildfire threatened a tourist town in Colorado's southwestern mountains on Friday, forcing its roughly 400 residents to flee ahead of the fast-burning blaze fueled by hot, windy weather.

Wildland firefighters teamed up with local firefighters to try to protect South Fork, which is surrounded by the Rio Grande National Forest. State authorities said the 47-square-mile fire was a few miles southwest of town Friday night and had been advancing at a rate of about a mile an hour. Thick smoke was limiting visibility.

Fire spokeswoman Penny Bertram wouldn't speculate on the likelihood of the town burning. There's a high probability of the fire reaching the town if it continues to behave as it has, she said, though more than 30 fire engines were assigned to protect South Fork.

An air tanker was able to drop slurry ahead of the fire to try to slow its growth and give firefighters a chance to dig a fire break, Bertram said.

"Every type of structure protection is in place," Jim Jaminet, fire management officer for the national forest, told about two dozen evacuees who gathered at Del Norte High School on Friday night.

The town is a popular spot for hiking and camping. The fictional Griswold family camped in South Fork in 1983's "National Lampoon's Vacation." The famous scene where a dog urinates on a picnic basket was filmed at South Fork's Riverbend Resort, called "Kamp Komfort" in the movie.

South Fork's mayor, Kenneth Brooke, sent his children and grandchildren to a safe location and stayed behind, helping several dozen area fire responders prepare for hosing down structures.

Brooke said authorities are allowing him to stay in South Fork until the blaze crests a nearby mountain. Until then, the mayor was taking phone calls from nervous neighbors.

"I just tell them it doesn't look good," Brooke told The Associated Press by phone Friday. "I tell them the truth, that the fire is coming. I just tell them to keep themselves safe, evacuate as need be and don't come back. We're just watching the fire and doing what we can for people's properties, but mostly it's just waiting. Right now I'm saying, 'Stay out.' "

Late June to August is usually peak season for South Fork, when tourists or part-time residents multiply the town's population.

Harold Josefy, his wife and their 13-year-old granddaughter left the Fun Valley RV Park after officers knocked on doors Friday. "They told us we had to get out now," he said.

But Terri Allahdadi and her motor coach were staying in South Fork for now. "It's like a ghost town," Allahdadi said by telephone Friday night. "We are not having trouble breathing. I know they need to evacuate people, but I don't feel threatened at all."

Later, South Fork native Denny Fleming, 55, said he, his wife and his dad were the only residents he knew who stayed behind. His family runs South Fork's only gas station. They were keeping it open so firefighters would have fuel, coffee and ice, he said.

Bertram said the hot, dry and windy weather along with large stands of beetle-killed trees are causing extreme fire behavior. While most fires actively burn four hours a day, this one is burning for 12 hours a day, helping it to mushroom in recent days.

"It's like a ghost town. We are not having trouble breathing. I know they need to evacuate people, but I don't feel threatened at all."

Terri Allahdadi, South Fork resident

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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