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Wildfire smoke smudges skies above Cheyenne

By Dan Elliott

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, June 13 2012 11:23 a.m. MDT

The High Park fire burns in Poudre Canyon, as seen from Glacier View Meadows, west of Fort Collins, Colo. on Tuesday, June 12, 2012. The fire has now burned more than 40,000 acres encompassing more than 65 square miles.

Aaron Ontiveroz, AP

LOVELAND, Colo. — Smoke from a massive wildfire in northern Colorado was blowing into southeast Wyoming and smudging the skies above Cheyenne on Wednesday.

Overnight winds from the southwest blew smoke into Wyoming, leaving a pungent odor in the air around the state's capital city, which is 50 miles north of the fire. The smoke had drifted south to Denver on Tuesday but skies there were clear a day later.

The fire 15 miles west of Fort Collins has burned 73 square miles, destroyed more than 100 structures and forced hundreds of people from their homes.

The evacuees face extended displacement and uncertainty, though some may find out Wednesday whether their houses are still standing.

Evacuee Jan Gueswel still swears she'd never live anywhere else.

"I would rather live in Poudre Park than in an apartment where I don't know what my neighbor is doing," said Gueswel, who fled her home with her husband, Carl, as northern Colorado's High Park Fire exploded.

She and others say they'd long ago accepted the year-round risks of fire in mountain country.

Many residents in the mountains of southern New Mexico faced heartbreak: A 56-square-mile fire threatening the village of Ruidoso damaged or destroyed at least 224 homes and other structures. Workers found heaps of burned metal and debris on home sites hit hardest by the Little Bear fire.

"It's truly heartbreaking to see the damage done to this beautiful part of the country," New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said.

The fires have underscored the need to replenish the nation's aerial firefighting fleet. This week, the U.S. Forest Service announced it was increasing the national fleet to 17. And on Wednesday, President Barack Obama planned to sign a bill aimed at speeding the contracting of the next generation of air tankers.

A 62-year-old woman died in her cabin in Colorado's High Park Fire, which was caused by lightning and has destroyed more than 100 structures. More than 600 firefighters labored to build containment lines as air tankers and helicopters focused on protecting buildings.

Gueswel expressed her gratitude.

"I don't want anybody to die for my house," she said. "I love my house, but I don't want to die for it, and I don't want anyone else to die for it."

In Wyoming, where crews made gains on two wildfires, state forester Bill Crapser said firefighters throughout the West are coping with drought, stands of trees killed by bark beetles, more residents in forested areas and a decades-old buildup of fuel — the legacy of quickly stamping out fires, rather than letting them burn as nature intended.

Forest residents need to do their part by clearing their property of fuel, he said.

"That's a tough thing to sell to a lot of people, because they move out there so they can have pine trees leaning over the top of their house," Crapser said. "That's part of the allure of it. But it's also part of the danger of it."

Across the West:

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

— Colorado: About 1,000 firefighters and 100 engines were at the High Park Fire on Wednesday. It has cost $3 million to fight.

— New Mexico: Nearly 1,000 firefighters and more than 200 National Guardsmen are on the 56-square-mile Little Bear fire. Containment is 35 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. Meanwhile, a preliminary report found an air tanker that crashed June 3 while fighting a wildfire in southern Utah, killing both pilots, hit mountainous terrain about 700 feet off the flight path of its lead plane.

— Wyoming: Investigators determined a fire burning in Guernsey State Park was human-caused. It is 95 percent contained, while a 13-square-mile fire in Medicine Bow National Forest is fully contained. The risk of new fires is high in much of the state because of dry air and expected strong winds.

— Arizona: A 2,600-acre wildfire in the Tonto National Forest northwest of Phoenix is 40 percent contained. It is threatening no buildings.

Associated Press writers Juan Carlos Llorca in Ruidoso, N.M.; Bob Moen, Ben Neary and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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