Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Air tankers and helicopters dropped fire retardant and water on a wildfire in the tinder-dry foothills west of Denver on Tuesday while 17 homes remained under evacuation orders.

Residents of hundreds more homes were told to be ready to evacuate if the fire came their way.

The fire, burning through grass, brush and trees in two rugged canyons outside Golden, started Sunday and had blackened about 1,200 acres or 2 square miles by Tuesday. It was 15 percent contained. Officials say they suspect it was human-caused.

High winds spread the fire Monday, and crews were bracing for more wind Tuesday, with gusts as high as 75 mph expected, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department said.

No injuries have been reported and no structures have burned. Sheriff's spokesman Mark Techmeyer said the flames moved past two homes overnight but firefighters were able to save both.

About 200 firefighters were on the lines Tuesday.

"I don't care how many firefighters they have, they can't control a fire that's raging in wind like that," said Keith Lowden, who was watching the fire with binoculars from a bedroom window at his home in a nearby subdivision. "That's the scariest part."

Months of dry weather have left much of Colorado vulnerable to wildfires, leaving what Techmeyer called "the perfect recipe for a fire disaster."

Tim Mathewson, a fire meteorologist for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which coordinates, federal, state and local firefighting, said much of eastern Colorado and the lower foothills have been drier than usual since August.

"It hasn't been just the last couple weeks. This is part of an extended dry period," he said.

He said fire danger could remain high until mid-April.

The U.S. Drought Monitor says most of Colorado east of the Rocky Mountains is in a severe drought. All of eastern Colorado, along with a broad swath of Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, were under a National Weather Service red flag warning Tuesday, meaning fire danger is high because humidity is 15 percent or less and winds are at least 25 mph.

A smaller, 10-acre fire southwest of Golden was contained Monday, allowing the residents of 25 evacuated homes to return. A third fire in the mountains of Jefferson County burned at least one structure before it was contained.

A wind-driven blaze scorched 622 acres west of Boulder on March 11. More than 200 homes were evacuated for a few hours, but none was damaged.


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