DEL NORTE — 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 the fire continues to behave as it has, she said, though more than 30 fire engines were assigned to protect it.
“They’re hedging their bets,” Bertram said.
An air tanker was also able to drop slurry ahead of the fire to try to slow its growth and to 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 and telling them the town’s grim forecast.
“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.”
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. The family’s Rainbow Grocery was closed though.
“We’re usually very, very busy right now,” Fleming 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.
Firefighters have largely let the lightning-sparked fire burn because it’s too hot and erratic to fight on the ground. Water and slurry drops from air tankers also haven’t been effective, with pilots reporting that their drops largely evaporated before hitting the ground.
“There’s no stopping it,” Bertram said.
The town was incorporated in 1992, making it Colorado’s youngest municipality. The town lost 11 structures in the 2002 Million Fire, which charred more than 14 square miles.
South Fork residents are used to damaging wildfires, but this year’s is shaping up to be the worst, Brooke said.
“Our tourists are what support the town. The fires are going to run everybody away. So that’s going to hurt,” he said.
It was among several fires burning in Colorado.
In south-central Colorado, nine structures and four outbuildings have been lost in a wildfire in Huerfano County that has evacuated homes of about two dozen residents and more than 170 Boy Scouts since it started Wednesday, fire officials said. Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday authorized $3 million to help with costs.
Hickenlooper also authorized $50,000 for a fire in Rocky Mountain National Park and extended funding for final expenses from fires in 2011 and 2012.
On Thursday, firefighters fully contained what is now the state’s most destructive wildfire. The Black Forest Fire destroyed more than 500 homes and killed two people near Colorado Springs.