West Fork Fire Complex, Colorado, June, 2013

by John Farley

The West Fork Fire Complex consists of three wildfires burning in the San Juan Mountains, near the Continental Divide near Wolf Creek Pass, northeast of Pagosa Springs, CO. All three of the fires were started by lightning. Because of their proximity to one another, the fires are being treated as a single complex of fires, with the firefighting for all three fires being treated as one operation, albeit with separate command sub-structures for different fires and even for different parts of largest fire in the complex, the West Fork Fire. As of June 29, the combined size of the three fires was 90,806 acres, and more than 1400 firefighters were fighting the fires.

In addition to being the largest of the three fires, that one has also been burning the longest. It appears to have started on June 5, in rugged terrain west of the Continental Divide, on the north side of U.S. 160. At that time, its size was 1/4 of an acre.

By June 13, the second fire, the Windy Pass fire, had started. This fire was south of U.S. 160, not far southwest of the Wolf Creek Ski Area, and for a time it appeared that it could be a threat to the ski area. By the time the Windy Pass Fire started, the West Fork Fire had increased to 25 acres.

By June 20, the third fire, the Papoose Fire, was burning northeast of the Continental Divide and northwest of the other two fires, not far from Pagosa Peak, but burning mainly to the northeast, away from Pagosa Peak. This fire quickly grew from 2000 acres to 11,000 acres by the end of June 20.

Below are some pictures I took of the fires beginning on June 16.

June 16

I took the two pictures above on the afternoon of June 16 as I was heading over Wolf Creek Pass for a chase in the eastern Colorado Plains the next couple days. This the West Fork Fire, which at the time was about 1,750 acres. The first picture is from the west side of the pass, and the next one is from the east side of the pass. This was several days before the fire crossed the Continental Divide, so at this time all of the fire was on the west/soutwest side of the Divide.

June 20

This picture of a towering column of smoke and pyrocumulus from the West Fork Fire was taken from the Pagosa Lakes area, about 20 miles southwest of the fire, as it made an intense run, jumped the Continental Divide, and quadrupled in size in one day from about 4,000 acres to over 12,000 acres. Burning in hot windy weather through areas with up to 90% beetlekill, the fire made a 7-mile run, with fire behavior described by firefighters as "unprecedented."

June 21

The top picture above shows how the smoke and pyrocumulus from the Papoose Fire was rising all the way to a layer of cirroform clouds passing over. Pilots reported smoke as high as 37,000 feet during the June 20-22 period. On June 21, the Papoose Fire grew from about 2,000 to 11,000 acres, for similar reasons to the growth of the West Fork Fire the previous day. The lower picture above shows both fires, Papoose on the left and West Fork on the right.

June 28

I encountered this dense smoke around Chromo, CO the afternoon of June 28 while driving from Santa Fe, NM to Pagosa Springs, CO. Thunderstorm outflow blew smoke from the West Fork fires down into the valleys, where it was trapped by a temperature inversion as cool outflow from the thunderstorms moved under warmer air above. Note the wet road and puddles - it was still raining lightly when I took this, but the rain did not disperse the smoke at all. The ridge in the background is no more than a mile away, and nearly all the visibility reduction is due to the smoke, as it was only raining lightly when I took this. By now, the total acreage of the West Fork Fire Complex (all 3 fires) exceeded 90,000 acres, with the West Fork Fire over 56,000 acres and the Papoose Fire over 32,000 acres.

I may add more pictures, as this event is ongoing as of June 29. It is a relief to know that conditions have improved somewhat, allowing residents and visitors to return to the town of South Fork yesterday. The town had been evacuated for more than a week. And this morning, Wolf Creek Pass reopened for the first time in about a week. The latest information on the fire can be obtained by visiting the official blog concerning the fire, which is maintained by the Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team that is fighting the fire. You can visit this blog at:


The above blog will be updated as new information becomes available.

This page last updated June 29, 2013. If I take new pictures of the fires or receive important additional information, I will update this page.

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