With wildfire raging, Colo. governor imposes burning restrictions
FORT GARLAND, Colo. – A fast-moving southern Colorado wildfire grew to 11,800 acres Wednesday, and Gov. Bill Owens banned open burning and fireworks on all state-owned land and urged local officials to do the same.No homes have been destroyed by the fire, but helicopters dropped water on smoldering ground within two miles of a rural subdivision east of Fort Garland.About 300 firefighters, two helicopters and a single-engine tanker attacked the blaze, aided by lower temperatures and calmer winds. Fire information officer Crestine Martinez said the winds diminished considerably from Tuesday’s 40 mph gusts and reversed direction, raising hopes that the fire would be driven back through ground that had previously burned.Officials say the fire was 30 percent contained Wednesday afternoon, with crews allowing the fire to burn itself out in uninhabited wilderness north of Highway 160.Owens toured the fire lines early Wednesday and likened the statewide danger to the disastrous fire year of 2002, when 235 homes were destroyed.”The current hot, dry conditions increase the potential for a major fire every day,” Owens said.He ordered the Colorado National Guard to prepare four helicopters for firefighting duty in case they are needed.The Fort Garland fire was burning in parched aspen forests and grassland and prompted evacuations of about 300 homes. Other residents were advised to leave, but not ordered to.Debbie Pettigrew decided not to evacuate but backed a trailer up to her house in case she had to pack family heirlooms and leave in a hurry.”It’s not just trees that are burning, it’s history,” Pettigrew said, adding that her family’s roots run deep in the area and some of her furniture dates to the covered-wagon era.Fire crews Wednesday afternoon focused on protecting houses, many of them vacation homes tucked among the mountains at 9,000 feet. Firefighters pre-positioned ladders and hoses where they might need them if the fire moves in. But they were hampered at times, trying to clear flammable items away from vacation homes left unprepared by owners living elsewhere.Dragging construction debris away from one home, Colorado Springs firefighter Jerry Montella surveyed all the wood that could be ignited by an encroaching fire.”We would like to see a lot less than this,” he said.Montella and others said they were also stymied by homes left locked. The water to outside hoses turned off, depriving them of a valuable asset. If they could get inside, firefighters said they would like to pull potentially flammable curtains away from windows and close mini-blinds. They said homeowners need to know how to protect their houses.One thing that could turn out to a big help is the weather.The National Weather Service predicted a “cool, moist surge” would move into the area Wednesday night. Meteorologist Kathy Torgerson said temperatures will likely drop about five degrees and relative humidity will rise in the mid-20 percent range after two much drier days.A wind shift Tuesday night allowed crews to back-burn a buffer zone near one subdivision, protecting homes if the blaze reverses direction.”It’s right there, it’s a step away,” fire information officer Steve Segin said. “There’s a lot of fire out there.”Segin said crews are gaining control, but noted there remains work to be done.”This thing is not nearly close to being out,” he said. “It’s not over yet.”U.S. 160 remained closed for the third day Wednesday.In Teller County about 60 miles south of Denver, a 44-acre fire in ponderosa pines and grass was about 65 percent contained Wednesday afternoon.Better mapping prompted fire managers to reduce the estimated size of the fire from 50 acres earlier.The fire forced the evacuation of three homes, but by noon Wednesday those families were allowed to return home. No houses had burned, but crews were trying to keep the flames from topping a ridge and threatening a nearby subdivision, fire information officer Naomi Marcus said. A fire line dug into the dry ridge Tuesday held up through the night Tuesday.Seven engines, a helicopter and 90 firefighters were dedicated to the fight.In western Colorado, a car wreck started a wildfire that quickly grew to at least 1,660-acres and threatened some cabins and ranches in Montrose County, prompting warnings but no mandatory evacuations, fire information officer Barbara Bassler said Wednesday.Five homes and dozens of sheds, detached garages, outhouses and other outbuildings were threatened, but no structures were burned.The fire in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, about 225 miles southwest of Denver near the Utah border, had crept to within a half-mile of the small town of Paradox, fire officials said. The town wasn’t ordered evacuated.The fire started Tuesday when a Ford Bronco driven by Linda L. Johnson, 36, of Naturita veered off a dirt road, rolled and caught fire, the Colorado State Patrol said.Johnson suffered neck and back injuries and was cited for careless driving and leaving the scene of an accident without reporting it, a state patrol report said. It was not immediately known if she sought medical attention.Fire managers requested more than 250 firefighters from as far away as Salt Lake City and California, including a dozen smoke jumpers, along with air tankers or helicopters and fire engines.In southwestern Colorado, the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch center said heavy smoke rolling across southern Colorado was coming from wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico. —Associated Press Writer Chase Squires contributed to this report.
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