Archive for Monday, June 10, 2002

Colorado firefighters go into defensive mode as wildfires rage

June 10, 2002


BULLETIN About 40,000 people ordered to evacuate their homes in southwestern Denver because of a wildfire, U.S. Forest Service officials say.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. Fire teams overpowered by a wildfire guarded dozens of homes in western Colorado rather than trying to fight the ferocious flames that burned across at least 7,300 acres, destroying 24 homes and sending residents fleeing.

It was one of several major blazes in the state early Monday that left the Denver area enveloped in a haze of yellow smoke. Moving even faster was a second wildfire in central Colorado burning on 30,000 acres of private land and in the Pike National Forest, west of Colorado Springs.

Gov. Bill Owens, who visited Glenwood Springs, also got a look at the Pike forest fire from a plane.

"It is an amazing spectacle. It looks like nuclear winter," Owens said. "All of Colorado is burning today. It is a very, very serious situation."

At Glenwood Springs, firefighters were especially cautious because of memories of the so-called Storm King fire on similarly dry, steep terrain that killed 14 firefighters in 1994. Though 40 structures including 24 homes were destroyed Sunday, there were no reported injuries in the Glenwood Springs fire.

"We learned from Storm King that dwellings can be rebuilt but you don't want to lose any life," Mayor Pro-tem Rick Davis said.

About 3,000 people were ordered to leave their homes while fire crews stood guard on the ridges above the town. The fire was apparently ignited by underground coal that had been burning for years, officials said.

The Pike blaze was sparked by a campfire Saturday. It exploded Sunday afternoon as winds of 40 mph drove it through bone-dry timber and brush. Campfires are banned in national forests and most counties because of the drought.

The fire forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes in the mountains southwest of Denver and spewed smoke along the Front Range. A yellow haze covered the Denver area and ashes rained on communities.

State health officials advised people, especially the young, elderly and those with respiratory problems to stay inside Sunday.

In southwestern Colorado, meanwhile, a fire on a 10,000-foot-high mountain ridge north of Durango torched 6,500 acres. Two campgrounds were evacuated, and a Forest Service helicopter picked up several hikers and campers. One summer cabin was destroyed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency late Sunday approved funds to help the state fight the blazes. The grant was the ninth FEMA approved for Colorado this year. The agency issued a total of eight grants to Colorado from 1994 to 2001.

In Smartville, Calif., residents forced from their homes by an 1,100-acre wildfire were allowed to return, but firefighters still had not gained an upper hand over the Northern California blaze.

Winds were pushing the fire southeast in the direction of Mooney Flat Road, about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, when the evacuation was ordered for about 150 homes on Sunday, said JoAnn Cartoscelli, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry.

The fire, which started early Sunday after high winds knocked power lines into a tree, was 30 percent contained Sunday evening. However, unpredictable winds made conditions difficult to access.

In Cimarron, N.M., hundreds of firefighters and a fleet of air tankers and water-dropping helicopters tried to slow down a series of wildfires that have charred thousands of acres of forested land in northeastern New Mexico.

The fire, which had burned an estimated 85,000 acres on and around the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch, was fueled by erratic winds Sunday, and officials expected another day of wind Monday.

Pushed by 50 mph winds, another fire in southwestern Utah tripled in size Sunday, growing to 5,000 acres. Firefighters were able to save about 30 vacation homes and evacuated 40 residents on Saturday from the area north of Zion National Park.

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