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Smoke from wildfire 60 miles away blankets Denver

Smog complicates aerial offensive against the spreading mountain blaze

By Dan Elliott

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, June 12 2012 4:14 p.m. MDT

An official speaks with Brittany Harrington at a road closure near her home on Highway 287, due to a wildfire burning in a mountainous area about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Sunday, June 10, 2012. Firefighters on Sunday were fighting wildfires that have spread quickly in parched forests in Colorado and New Mexico, forcing hundreds of people from their homes and the evacuation of wolves from a sanctuary. The Colorado fire grew to 22 square miles within about a day of being reported and has destroyed or damaged 18 structures.

Aaron Ontiveroz, Associated Press

LOVELAND, Colo. — A northern Colorado wildfire 60 miles away wrapped Denver in a pungent cloud of smoke for several hours Tuesday and complicated the aerial offensive against the spreading mountain blaze, which has killed one person and destroyed more than 100 structures.

Downtown Denver was shrouded in an orange glow before a blanket of cold air trapping the fire pollution evaporated. The foothills stretching north to Fort Collins were virtually obscured by smoke, while closer to the 68-square-mile blaze, visibility on some highways was just a mile.

State health officials urged the elderly, children and those prone to asthma to stay indoors.

Smoke temporarily grounded the air attack on the High Park Fire, centered some 15 miles northwest of Fort Collins. Helicopters and tanker planes took to the skies by midday.

Larimer County authorities allowed some residents to return home — but issued 25 more evacuation notices to residents on the fire's western flank.

In southern New Mexico, firefighters made progress on a 56-square-mile fire that forced hundreds of residents to evacuate near the mountain village of Ruidoso. Some 125 homes and outbuildings have burned, and the damage assessment was continuing, said Kerry Gladden, a Ruidoso town spokeswoman.

Gov. Susana Martinez toured the area and declared a state of emergency to free funding and firefighting resources. "It's truly heartbreaking to see the damage done to this beautiful part of the country," Martinez said.

Wildfires in the drought-stricken West have tested federal resources.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced late Monday the agency was contracting eight heavy air tankers to increase the aging national fleet to 17.

Still, Colo. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet urged President Barack Obama to sign a bill that would allow the Forest Service to buy as many as seven large air tankers outright. The U.S. House and Senate passed the bill last week.

In Colorado's Larimer County, authorities and family said Linda Steadman, 62, perished inside her mountain cabin. Her home received two evacuation warnings that weren't answered, and a firefighter tried to reach the cabin before fire overtook the site, Sheriff Justin Smith said.

Across the West:

—California: A wildfire that briefly threatened homes in Kern County is nearing containment.

—Colorado: The 68-square-mile High Park Fire is 5 percent contained. As many as 800 firefighters are expected on the lines by Wednesday. Ten air tankers and 14 water dropping helicopters are attacking the blaze.

—New Mexico: Nearly 1,000 firefighters and more than 200 National Guardsmen are battling the 56-square-mile Little Bear fire. Containment is 30 percent. More than 500 firefighters bolstered lines around the Gila fire, the country's largest at 438 square miles.

—Utah: Two wildfires blackened 4,000 acres in Fishlake National Forest in southern Utah. A third fire believed to have been sparked by target shooting near Centerville, 15 miles north of Salt Lake City, was quickly contained late Monday.

—Wyoming: A 4-square-mile blaze at Guernsey State Park is 80 percent contained. Six helicopters and 600 firefighters are deployed. Firefighters contained 95 percent of a 13-square-mile fire in Medicine Bow National Forest and completely contained a 1,700-acre fire in Weston County.

Associated Press writers Juan Carlos Llorca in Ruidoso, N.M.; Rema Rahman and Colleen Slevin in Denver; Bob Moen in Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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