DEL NORTE, Colo. – Fire crews with tankers and hoses at the ready stood guard Friday night as a massive and fast-burning wildfire threatened a popular mountain tourist enclave in southwestern Colorado, forcing the evacuation of more than 400 people.
"It's like gasoline up there," said Cindy Shank, a former firefighter and executive director of the southwest Colorado chapter of the Red Cross, which set up a shelter at Del Norte's high school for residents and visitors of South Fork, a summer retreat of cabins, RV parks and mostly part-time homes.
"I've never seen a fire do this before," Shank said of the blaze, which was being fueled by hot, windy weather and miles and miles of strands of trees killed by a beetle infestation. "It's really extreme, extreme fire behavior. It has split into two pieces. There are two heads to the fire."
A black smoky sky, broken up only by an orange glow over the outlines of the San Juan mountains, was all that was visible from the nearby town of Del Norte, where evacuees were given an update Friday evening by fire officials.
"It will be a couple of days before South Fork is out of danger," Jim Jaminet, a fire management officer for the Rio Grande National Forest, told evacuees.
Although he tried to reassure the residents that their homes and cabins would be saved — "Every type of structure protection is in place," Jaminet said — he noted that the wind- and dead tree-fueled blaze was unpredictable.
"Every afternoon these things are getting legs and getting up and walking around," he said of the fires.
Dozens of fire crews were positioned around neighborhoods in the town, working to remove propane tanks and wood piles that could help ignite homes.
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.
Meantime, a third fire sparked to the West, raising concerns it would move toward the town of Creede, which has about 300 residents.
And to the east, in south-central Colorado, nine structures and four outbuildings have been lost in a wildfire in Huerfano County that forced the evacuation of about two dozen residents and more than 170 Boy Scouts since it started Wednesday, fire officials said.
South Fork 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.
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 morning. "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.
Since most of the residents are part-time, most evacuees said they were less concerned about personal possessions than lifestyle.
"There's just lots of memories," Sue McCraw of Stillwater, Okla., said of she and her husband, Dean's rustic cabin 11 miles from South Fork.
"It's an antique," Dean McCraw said. "But it has character."