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Firefighters Battle to Save Colo. Town

In this Thursday, June 20, 2013 photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service, wildfires fires approach the town of South Fork, Colo. The town of about 400 people was evacuated Friday morning, June 21, 2013. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service, Penny Bertram)

In this Thursday, June 20, 2013 photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service, wildfires fires approach the town of South Fork, Colo. The town of about 400 people was evacuated Friday morning, June 21, 2013. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service, Penny Bertram)

Del Norte, Colo. — A massive wildfire threatening a tourist region in southwestern Colorado has grown to nearly 60 square miles, but officials said yesterday that the erratic blaze had slowed and they were optimistic they could protect the town of South Fork.

The fire’s rapid advance prompted the evacuation of hundreds of summer visitors and the town’s 400 permanent residents Friday, and it could be days before people are allowed back into their homes, cabins and RV parks, fire crew spokeswoman Laura McConnell said. South Fork Mayor Kenneth Brooke estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 people were forced to flee.

Some business owners were being allowed back into South Fork during the day yesterday to tie up issues left unattended in the rush to leave.

Officials, meanwhile, closely monitored an arm of the blaze moving toward the neighboring town of Creede.

“We were very, very lucky,” said Rio Grande County Commissioner Carla Shriver. “We got a free pass yesterday.”

McConnell said no structures had been lost and the fire was still about 5 miles from the town.

The blaze had been fueled by dry, hot, windy weather and a stand of dead trees, killed by a beetle infestation. But the fire’s spread had slowed by yesterday morning after the flames hit a healthy section of forest.