Betty Nicholopoulos wears a mask as she does laundry with Sheryl Forrester as the Papoose fire continues to burn near Creede on Tuesday.
Betty Nicholopoulos wears a mask as she does laundry with Sheryl Forrester as the Papoose fire continues to burn near Creede on Tuesday. The three fires that make up the West Fork Complex fire now top out at more than 70,000 acres. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

DEL NORTE — They grabbed some clothes, insurance papers, cash, pets, guns — just the essentials. And then they waited.

But five days after erratic, smoke-billowing wildfires forced more than 1,000 residents and summer vacationers from the town of South Fork, evacuees were getting anxious. Languishing at Red Cross shelters and friends' homes, they'd had more than enough time to remember all that they had mistakenly left behind: pills in the medicine cabinet, extra underwear and other incidentals they failed to grab after the startling automated alert 911 calls told them to get out, now.

Some residents got their first chance to return to retrieve belongings Tuesday but were told it could be days or weeks before they could go home for good.

The West Fork complex of three wildfires in the southwestern mountains grew to 124 square miles but remained about 3 or 4 miles from South Fork, and incident commander Pete Blume was cautiously hopeful that slightly improved weather conditions and bulldozer lines would keep it from moving closer.

"It hasn't been easy; we just pray a lot," said Marge Jeane, whose husband, Percy, uses oxygen and has struggled to breathe as smoke floats across several communities. The 81-year-olds sat in a minivan at a U.S. 160 road block where they waited for a Rio Grande sheriff's deputy to escort them to their home. Like many of those living in South Fork, the couple is from Texas and has spent summer vacationed in the area since 1964.

An early Friday morning automated phone call stirred them out of their home and into a friend's beyond the evacuation zone.

"You don't know what to take. You try to wrack your brain; when you're finally packed, you're mentally exhausted because you don't know what you forgot," Percy Jeane said. "Friday night and Saturday was terribly stressful."

"We didn't know if we had a home or not," his wife said.

A trailer park has formed outside the Red Cross shelter near Del Norte High School, filled with RVs housing the refugees.

Among them were Marvin Bransom, 77, and Paula Gee, 65, a brother and sister who had arrived from near Fort Worth for summer vacation just a few weeks ago. Her asthma aside, Gee said her accommodations are comfortable. But they wondered how long it would be before they could return.

"If it goes on for two weeks, I'm going to Texas to see my grandkids," said evacuee Royce Baugh, who was waiting for a quick trip to his home. He grabbed family photos, some paperwork and tools but forgot a host of other items. "You kind of have to know what you value."

Sadie Gurman: 303-954-1661, or