Crews seek upper hand on raging Colorado wildfires

By Dan Elliott

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, June 21 2012 7:10 a.m. MDT

The stairs that led to a home that was destroyed by the High Park Wild fire are photographed during a tour by fire officials in Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Wednesday, June 20, 2012. The largest Colorado blaze west of Fort Collins was 55 percent contained and has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9.

Ed Andrieski, Associated Press

BELLVUE, Colo. — Colorado firefighters are ramping up their attack on a lightning-sparked blaze that has spread across more than 100 square miles of tinder-dry terrain and left officials to believe it could be weeks, or even months, before the fire is finally controlled.

The offensive that started Wednesday on the massive wildfire west of Fort Collins comes after gusty winds fanned flames during three straight days of heat that saw temperatures reach into the 90s. The fire started June 9 and was 55 percent contained.

"Mother Nature has allowed us this window, and we have responded very aggressively," said Brett Haberstick, a spokesman for fire managers.

Area temperatures dipped into the 70s on Wednesday and were expected to hit 80 degrees Thursday.

The fire burning on more than 68,000 acres destroyed at least 189 homes, making it the most destructive in Colorado history. The Denver Post reports the estimated $19.6 million in damages caused by the fire also marks a state high (http://goo.gl/kmcYc ).

Firefighters battling another blaze in central Colorado saw conditions improve Wednesday as well. That blaze, near Lake George, is more than 20 percent contained, despite a meteor warning that led authorities to temporarily ground firefighting aircraft.

The temporary move came amid several reported sky sightings near the nearly 2-square-mile fire west of Colorado Springs.

Chaffee County Sheriff W. Peter Palmer said his office received multiple reports, including one person who thought a meteorite might have landed in a wooded area north of Buena Vista. Palmer said officials could not confirm that report.

Meanwhile, the crew of a heavy air tanker spotted something while making a slurry run on the blaze, said Steve Segin, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

"They landed as they normally do to reload and, for safety reasons, they grounded themselves until they could figure out what it was they saw," he said.

The Colorado sightings corresponded with a report of a possible meteor filed by the crews of two commercial aircraft over Liberal, Kan., as well as another from Raton, N.M., near the Colorado state line, said meteorologist Scott Entrekin of the National Weather Service in Boulder.

Ian Gregor, a spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration, said he had no such reports. He also said there were no reported disruptions to commercial airline traffic.

In Arizona, dense smoke from a wildfire near Payson prompted a health watch in the Phoenix area on Wednesday. Residents were asked to avoid using gas-powered lawn mowers and to limit driving or carpool.

A New Mexico fire also prompted Albuquerque officials to issue a health advisory as a thick plume of smoke rose from the wooded area along the Rio Grande on the northern edge of the state's largest city. Crews worked to put out flames burning on both sides of the river and appeared to be gaining the upper hand by nightfall.

The Romero fire was declared 70 percent contained on the west side of the Rio Grande. On the east side of the river, the Sandia Lakes recreation area managed by Sandia Pueblo was being evacuated and authorities were trying to move livestock from the area.

Elsewhere:

__ In California, firefighters have gotten the upper hand on a 385-acre fire near Sequoia National Park in California and evacuees from were allowed to return to their homes and cabins Wednesday evening.

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