A woman covers her face to help aid against the smoky haze near downtown Creede on June 24, 2013.
A woman covers her face to help aid against the smoky haze near downtown Creede on June 24, 2013. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

High winds kept firefighters in southwestern Colorado in a defensive posture Monday, but officials are optimistic that decreasing winds will aid efforts on Tuesday and Wednesday in their battle against the West Fork Complex fire.

The fire, a combination of three wildfires — West Fork, Windy Pass and Papoose — has burned about 75,150 acres about 14 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs.

For most of the day, the area was under a red flag warning from the National Weather Service. The fire warning was prompted by gusty winds up to 55 mph in the fire area, low humidities and extremely dry fuels.

Officials said Monday evening that the winds had severely limited air support throughout the day, but structures had been lost.

A plume of smoke grows as wind speeds increase as the West Fork Fire continues to burn near South Fork on Sunday, June 23, 2013. As of Monday morning, the
A plume of smoke grows as wind speeds increase as the West Fork Fire continues to burn near South Fork on Sunday, June 23, 2013. As of Monday morning, the West Fork Fire complex grew to 76,000 acres overnight. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

The massive fire, which is threatening the town of South Fork, is burning through steep terrain with heavy timber, including wide areas of dead, standing beetle-kill spruce trees.

"This is a significant fire, with significant problems," said Pete Blume, West Fork Complex incident commander. "You will not see significant gains until we get some help from the weather."

And, although winds are expected to die down on Tuesday, the temperature is likely to go up.

The cost of fighting the fire is $2.2 million as of Monday.

On Sunday, the fire had some growth to the north and the east, fueled by winds out of the southwest, and it also burned acreage within the perimeter.

Fire command had 895 people working on the fire Monday, with 50 engines, 10 water tenders and nine helicopters.

Command expected to use four or five heavy air tankers, along with three single-engine air tankers Monday.

There is no containment of the fire, but firefighters worked to establish a 2-mile bulldozer line Sunday above South Fork.

"We are very encouraged with those efforts," Blume said.

Blume described the dozer line as the "beginning" of a control line, something firefighters hoped to "anchor" on Monday.

"Every day it doesn't run at South Fork is a good thing," Blume said. "I have to say, things are looking better but by no means secure."

There are no current plans to allow residents who are evacuated back into their homes.

Power had been disrupted in the area by the fire.

The San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative reminded residents to thoroughly cook any refrigerated or frozen foods to the proper temperature to assure that any food-borne bacteria is destroyed.

The fire likely will burn for months, Blume told The Associated Press. And crews are not expecting to make any real gains against the 117-square-mile burn until the summer monsoon season brings cooler temperatures and rains, hopefully in early July.

The blaze started June 5 with a lighting strike in a rugged, remote area of the San Juan Mountains, west of the Continental Divide. A second lightning strike sparked a fire east of the Divide. The two then joined, making a fast run Thursday and Friday at popular tourist areas, including South Fork and the Wolf Creek Ski Area.

A third lightning strike, meantime, sparked another fire to the west, creating what is now called the West Fork complex.

Crews in Colorado also are being challenged by the high altitude, which adds to the danger and complexity of launching air assaults in smoke and high winds, said Larry Trapp, a branch director of air operations with Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Command working the east side of the Continental Divide.

A woman walks down a relatively empty Main Street in Creede.
A woman walks down a relatively empty Main Street in Creede. The West Fork Complex fire continues to burn as it feeds on vast amounts of beetle kill in the surrounding forest. As a result, Creede, a town that relies on the summer months' cash flow to get through long winters, is as empty in June as anyone in the area can remember. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

Among the air resources on the way, he said, is a helicopter with infrared technology that can fly through the smoke to map power lines above the tree line.

About a dozen fires burned elsewhere in Colorado, including the nearly 21-square-mile East Peak wildfire near the southern Colorado town of Walsenburg that was 50 percent contained.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jefferson County issued Level 1 pre-evacuation orders to 106 phones in the Maxwell Hill Road Area Monday afternoon.

Maxwell Hill Road residents have been told to be prepared to leave because of the Bear Gulch fire, according to Jefferson County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Jacki Kelley.

The Bear Gulch Fire is located in the remote area of Elk Mountain Road and Kuehster Road in the Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District.

Fire officials are having a hard time accessing the fire, even smaller trucks cannot get into the area. Air support has already done nine water drops, according to Kelley.