Western wildfires rage over weekend, worst in 25 years
Colorado residents evacuated and a small fire in New Mexico grows rapidly, frustrating authorities
By Kristen Wyatt
The Associated Press
LOVELAND, Colo. — Crews in Colorado and New Mexico battled wildfires Sunday that were moving fast through parched forests, forcing scores of evacuations and destroying or damaging numerous structures.
A blaze in northern Colorado first reported Saturday morning had grown to nearly 22 square miles by Sunday morning, while a fire in southern New Mexico was small for a few days until it began growing Friday, reaching about 10,000 acres.
Both fires have damaged property and forced numerous evacuations, but officials haven't yet released specific figures on the numbers who fled.
The smell of smoke drifted into the Denver area and smoke from the Colorado and New Mexico fires spread as far away as parts central Nebraska, western Kansas and Texas.
The Colorado wildfire was burning in the mountainous Paradise Park area about 15 miles west of Fort Collins. Officials didn't specify how many residents had evacuated but said they had sent out more than 1,500 emergency notifications urging people to be prepared to evacuate if necessary. About 500 people had checked in at two Red Cross shelters.
Law officers went door to door to alert people in the evacuation area on Saturday, but officials were worried that not everyone got the word.
Elaine Mantle and her family got a call to evacuate their Bellvue home Sunday morning. It took about 30 minutes for them to get out and reach a spillover shelter at the Budweiser Event Center in Loveland. Evacuees gathered there for a fire briefing, sipping coffee and eating bananas and powdered doughnuts, in a large gymnasium-like space.
It was the Mantles' first evacuation in the 25 years they have lived in the mountains and they were grateful to be safe.
"We're all here, we're all OK. Our neighbors are all here. We feel good," Mantle said.
She, her husband and adult daughter checked for fire information updates on their phones as they waited for the briefing to begin.
At least 18 structures have been destroyed or damaged, although authorities were unsure if they were homes or some other kind of buildings. No injuries have been reported, and the cause of the fire was unknown.
Authorities say it's the worst fire seen in the county in about 25 years. It spread as fast as 1 1 1/2 miles an hour Saturday, skipping and jumping over some areas but burning intensely in trees in others. Flames were coming dangerously close to deputies who were telling some residents to evacuate, Sheriff Justin Smith said.
Because of the erratic way the fire has burned, unburned structures within the fire perimeter remain at risk.
Gusts up to 40 mph and low humidity were forecast Sunday.
"It's going to make the firefighting difficult as soon as it warms up," National Weather Service meteorologist Kyle Fredin said.
Four air tankers — including two from Canada — and several helicopters were on the scene to help fight the blaze, which appeared to be burning on private and U.S. Forest Service land and was expected to be fueled by wind gusts of up 40 mph Sunday.
Wind was also playing a major role in the expansion of a lightning-sparked blaze in New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest that jumped its containment lines and raced through thick conifer forests. Fire managers said 20 structures were damaged or destroyed.
Spanning only a few acres on Wednesday, the Little Bear fire began to grow Friday and by Saturday afternoon about 10,000 acres had been charred northwest of the mountain community of Ruidoso.
"It's nerve-racking right now," Mayor Ray Alborn said in a telephone interview Saturday, as he watched what he described as "real heavy smoke" rise from the Sierra Blanca mountain range.
The mix of timber, dry grass and the steepness of the slopes were making the firefighting efforts more difficult. Windy conditions were also limiting what could be done from the air by helicopters and air tankers, Alborn said.
Fire information officers said summer homes in a few subdivisions and several campgrounds were evacuated late Friday, and more on homes on Saturday. Roads throughout the area were closed, said forest spokeswoman Peg Crim.
The fire was burning in steep, rocky, inaccessible terrain in the White Mountain Wilderness of the Lincoln National Forest, which is home to Smokey Bear, the little black cub that became the nation's symbol of fire prevention in the 1940s.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said decades of mismanagement, forests packed full of trees and persistent drought conditions have resulted in an explosive situation.
"We just can't keep managing our forests this way," he said. "It's not a question of if our forests in the West are going to burn, it's a matter of when. This is just one more demonstration of that."