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Colorado wildfire now 50 percent contained

By P. Solomon Banda

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, June 19 2012 3:15 a.m. MDT

A fence post is burned in two from the the High Park wildfire, near Bellvue, Colo., on Monday, June 18, 2012. The wildfire has burned over 180 homes.

Ed Andrieski, Associated Press

LOVELAND, Colo. — Wildfires across the West drove hundreds of people from their homes from California to Colorado, where nuns living in a monastery and Boy Scouts at camp were among those forced to flee ahead of the flames.

Firefighters are making progress on a 92 square-mile wildfire in northern Colorado despite hot, dry weather. The blaze west of Fort Collins was 50 percent contained Tuesday after firefighters labored in temperatures in the 90s to extend lines around the blaze the day before. Expected strong winds didn't materialize Monday, but breezy conditions were forecast Tuesday along with more hot weather.

Eight more homes were found burned on Monday, bringing the damage so far to at least 189 — the most in the state's history. Houses in the area already burned by the fire are still at risk because of pockets of unburned fuel.

Other wildfires were burning in warm, arid weather from Wyoming to Arizona to Southern California, where a blaze that prompted the evacuation of at least 150 homes was 30 percent contained Monday.

Fire officials warned that the 907-acre fire in eastern San Diego County still threatens 200 houses, sheds and other buildings. The fire has destroyed at least one home.

In Colorado, another fire that started Sunday in the foothills west of Colorado Springs prompted evacuations of residents, a Boy Scout camp and a recreation area near the Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir, which provides water to the Denver area. The Orthodox Church in America said a monastery of nuns was also evacuated.

That fire has burned about 1 1/2 square miles, and fire managers said it has the potential to grow much more in the dry conditions.

As firefighters try to get the upper hand on the blaze near Fort Collins, which has burned large swaths of private and U.S. Forest Service land since it began June 9, local authorities have dispatched roving patrols to combat looting.

Deputies arrested Michael Stillman Maher, 30, of Denver, Sunday on charges including theft and impersonating a firefighter. The sheriff's department said Maher was driving through the fire zone with phony firefighter credentials and a stolen government license plate. His truck was later seen near a bar in Laporte, and investigators said they found a gun and stolen property in the vehicle.

Jeff Corum, whose home burned on the first day of the northern Colorado fire, described whirling, unpredictable winds that drove the blaze.

"That's what it's been doing, back and forth," Corum said. "It's just like a washing machine, and it's just rolling up there, and that's the way the mountains are."

Corum grabbed some clothing and two weapons when he fled, but not his credit cards. He's spent a few nights in a motel, some at a Red Cross evacuation center and some in his truck.

On Monday, Rocky Mountain National Park enacted a ban on all campfires because of the threat of wildfires in Colorado. The park normally allows campfires in designated fire rings, but the ban will prohibit those, as well as charcoal grilling, for the first time since September 2010.

Authorities also are trying to enforce a ban on using private fireworks in Colorado.

Across the West:

— In California, nearly 500 personnel have been dispatched to fight the fire east of Campo, in San Diego County. Water-dropping helicopters doused the area Monday, and firefighters braced for temperatures to rise and winds to pick up speed. Still, fire officials expected the blaze to be fully contained Tuesday night.

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