Fire forces evacuation of 8,500 houses near Denver

By Dan Elliott

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 24 2011 3:50 p.m. MDT

Firefighters from Standing Rock N.D. gather to hike to the fire line in Golden Gate Canyon during the Indian Gulch fire in Jefferson County, Colo. on Wednesday, March 23, 2011. Crews battling the wildfire burning in the foothills west of Denver got some help from helicopters and planes Wednesday as windy weather diminished. Helicopters were dropping water on the fire that has burned nearly 2 square miles of steep, wooded terrain near Golden. An air crew was flying above the fire and letting firefighters on the ground know of any changes in fire behavior. Winds gusting up to 75 mph Tuesday had grounded air support, but they have since eased.

The Denver Post, Joe Amon, Associated Press

GOLDEN, Colo. — A second major wildfire started Thursday in an outlying Denver suburb that forced the evacuation of about 8,500 houses because of flames being fanned by winds of 30 mph and stronger, authorities said.

They have ordered evacuations for homes within a 4-mile radius of the fire near Franktown, which is about 35 miles southeast of Denver.

The fire started on 4 acres Thursday afternoon in a wooded area and is being driven by the winds. The densely populated area is mostly flat plains with some hills and wooded areas.

Smoke from the blaze was visible from south Denver suburbs and a helicopter is dropping water. A Red Cross evacuation point has been set up at the Douglas County fairgrounds.

The other fire has charred a little more than 2 square miles in rugged canyons just outside Golden, about 15 miles west of downtown Denver. Crews are still trying to contain that fire.

Authorities said 289 homes are in the immediate area but none was considered to be immediately threatened by the fire. No homes have been destroyed and evacuation orders have been lifted.

U.S. 6, a busy highway that connects Denver with the casino towns of Blackhawk and Central City, has been closed because of heavy fire truck traffic and will remain shut down until engineers can determine whether helicopter water drops have loosened any rocks and left them in danger of tumbling onto the road.

Colorado Transportation Department spokeswoman Stacey Stegman said she didn't know when the inspection would be done.

Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an emergency disaster declaration Thursday, allowing the state to spend up to $1.5 million to cover firefighting costs. It also opens the door to asking for federal help, if necessary.

Winds and extremely dry weather helped the Golden fire spread quickly when it started Sunday. Since then, wind has periodically grounded the helicopters that drop water on the blaze, now listed at 1,500 acres. Helicopters were able to fly Wednesday, but winds were expected to pick up again Thursday, with gusts up to 40 mph in the foothills in the afternoon.

The wildfire risk was high from central Colorado south into northern New Mexico, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a red flag warning for the area Thursday.

Wildfires are common in Colorado this time of year, when winds are strong and vegetation is dry. Compounding that is a severe drought affecting most of Colorado east of the Rocky Mountains, including the Denver metropolitan area.

Incident commander Rowdy Muir, who has been in the job for nine years, said this is the earliest his team has ever been mobilized. Colorado could be in for a repeat of the 2002 season, when the largest wildfire in state history burned 215 square miles, he said. A total of 515 square miles burned statewide that year.

"If we don't see any moisture this spring, I think you're going to see a lot of fire in this Rocky Mountain region," he said.

State climatologist Nolan Doesken said precipitation in the foothills and on Colorado's Eastern Plains has been at 50 percent of average or below since August.

What moisture the area has received has been spread out in occasional small storms. No substantial, widespread storms carrying a lot of moisture have occurred this season.

At least five Colorado counties have enacted fire bans.

In Longmont, northwest of Denver, a small grass fire that started Wednesday morning east of U.S. 36 grew to 7 acres before it was contained. A fire scorched 300 acres of grass near La Junta in southeast Colorado before it was contained.

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