The West Fork Complex refers to three separate wildfires ignited by lightning strikes in southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains in June 2013. The West Fork, Windy Pass, and Papoose Fires broke out between June 5 and June 19. By the time they were contained on July 15, the three blazes scorched a total of 109,049 acres of public and private land in Mineral and Hinsdale Counties. The complex is the third-largest wildfire in Colorado history and cost about $33 million to fight.
The complex did not cause any deaths, and few structures were lost. Still, by burning so close to San Juan communities that depend on the surrounding forests to attract tourists, the fires devastated local economies for years. The complex also prompted renewed criticism of the country’s century-old strategy of fire suppression, as thousands of old-growth trees killed by the mountain pine beetle contributed to the fuel load.
2013 Fire Season
After a 2012 fire season that saw deadly June conflagrations, Colorado braced for more record-breaking heat in the summer of 2013. On June 11, temperatures in Denver reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, setting a record for the earliest arrival of triple-digit temperatures in the Mile High City. That month, in addition to the West Fork Complex, dry and windy conditions started several fires elsewhere in Colorado, including the deadly Black Forest Fire north of Colorado Springs as well as smaller blazes in Royal Gorge and Rocky Mountain National Park. By season’s end, 1,176 fires had torched 195,145 acres across the state, with the West Fork Complex accounting for nearly half of that acreage.
In the San Juan Mountains, below-average snowpack had already melted by early June, when Hinsdale and Mineral Counties entered “severe drought.” Above-average temperatures, fifty-mile-per-hour winds, single-digit humidity, and thousands of beetle-killed trees put the area one spark away from an inferno. On June 5, a lightning strike ignited the West Fork Fire in rugged terrain some fourteen miles northeast of Pagosa Springs, on the west side of US Highway 160. Over the next two weeks, drifting embers from the West Fork Fire ignited the Windy Pass Fire south of Wolf Creek Pass, and another thunderbolt lit the Papoose Fire near the Rio Grande River west of Creede. Fire chiefs were reluctant to attack the fires directly, as inaccessible terrain, high storm winds, and abundant fuel made the work extremely dangerous for firefighters.
By June 16, despite favorable conditions and a lack of direct firefighting, the West Fork Fire had reached only 1,700 acres and the Windy Pass Fire totaled just 108. That day, firefighters began referring to both blazes—separated by only several miles—as the “West Fork Complex.”
One week later, the situation looked a lot worse: the entire town of South Fork was evacuated on June 21, as the West Fork blaze moved in from the west. Meanwhile, the Papoose Fire exploded from 2,000 to 11,000 acres. The next day, command teams officially added that fire to the West Fork Complex, which was now burning on both sides of the Continental Divide on a total of more than 53,000 acres. Observers noted the complex’s massive smoke plume, which one South Fork resident compared to that of an atomic bomb.
About 200 firefighters were involved at this time, mostly focused on protecting remote cabins and infrastructure, and directing the flames away from key areas such as South Fork and the Wolf Creek Ski Area. Colorado National Guard members arrived to assist firefighters on June 24. Thanks to firefighters’ efforts and a change in the winds, most South Fork residents were able to return on June 28. Many rural communities near the complex, however, remained evacuated into July.
As many as 1,561 personnel were involved in fighting the complex in late June. By then, it had grown to encompass more than 90,000 acres, most of which was burned by the West Fork (56,373 acres) and Papoose (32,272 acres) Fires. Rains on June 29 finally allowed fire crews to gain single-digit containment on the blazes, whose growth slowed considerably after July 4. By July 7, crews had the fires 25 percent contained, aided by heavy rains over the West Fork Fire. Full containment on all three fires was not reached until July 15.
While it spared human lives and property—save one pumping station—the West Fork Complex burned huge swaths of the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests, leaving a landscape prone to erosion and flooding, and cutting off access to the hundreds of tourists who sustain local economies.
Without vegetation to absorb water, soils become loose and easily wash away during storms, choking up riverbeds and exacerbating floods. Fortunately, the West Fork Complex area received only light rains in the aftermath of the fire, so downstream communities were spared severe flooding.
Ecologists also worried about the state of the Upper Rio Grande River, which saw high rates of turbidity for several years due to influxes of ash and debris from the Papoose Fire. While recent studies of the river indicate that fish and insect populations are recovering to prefire levels, the forests may not completely regenerate. One year after the complex, San Juan forester Steve Hatvigsen estimated that for the next 200 to 600 years, the burned area will likely include more meadows and aspen stands and fewer tall pine trees.
Meanwhile, the economic effects of the fires were felt immediately, as they occurred at the peak of the San Juan tourist season. Towns such as Creede, South Fork, and Del Norte saw many tourists evacuate and not return, even over the next few seasons.
Immediately after the West Fork Complex, local, state, and federal agencies formed the Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team (RWEACT), which works to develop coordinated responses to fire in the Upper Rio Grande valley. By 2018 RWEACT had secured grants for recovery efforts that included a water-quality study, debris-flow mapping, economic recovery plans, and the removal of beetle-killed trees to reduce available fuel for future fires.
The alleged role of beetle-kill in the rapid growth of the West Fork Complex prompted many local residents and authorities to call for removal of trees killed by the bug. While doing so would likely reduce fuel loads, researchers have yet to confirm that forests post-beetle outbreak burn more intensely than preoutbreak forests, instead pointing to a more complicated relationship between outbreaks and fire.
While the impact of beetle-kill on wildfires is still debated, the West Fork Complex nonetheless proved that it is dangerous to allow the buildup of fuels on public lands, especially as summers get hotter in Colorado and across the West. Thus, like other large conflagrations, the West Fork Complex called into question the United States’ century-long practice of fire suppression. That strategy is now yielding to one that includes controlled burns and fuel mitigation in an effort to prevent more huge fires.