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Wildfires explode in West, U.S. toll hits 4,200 square miles

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Thursday, July 5, 2018 3:50 PM
A helicopter moves along ridges to make water drops on the Spring Creek Fire as it continues to burn in Costilla County on Tuesday near La Veta.
Smoke rises from the Spring Fire as it burns Tuesday, July 3, near Fort Garland, Colorado. The growing wildfire destroyed more than 100 homes.
Ty Warren leaves a pen where his father’s cattle are being kept at the Huerfano County Fairgrounds where displaced people have brought their pets for safe keeping as the Spring Creek Fire continues to burn Tuesday, July 3, in La Veta, Colorado.
Charred land from the Spring Creek Fire is shown during a tour of the wildfire Tuesday, July 3, near Fort Garland, Colorado. The growing wildfire destroyed more than 100 homes.
Charred land from the Spring Creek Fire is shown during a tour of the wildfire Tuesday, July 3, near Fort Garland, Colorado. The growing wildfire destroyed more than 100 homes in the Colorado mountains, while other blazes across the parched West.
The Spring Creek Fire continues to burn in Costilla County on Tuesday, July 3, in La Veta, Colorado. More than 100 homes in the Colorado mountains were destroyed by a growing wildfire, while hundreds of others across the parched U.S. West remained under evacuations Tuesday and the closure of recreation areas derailed holiday plans.
The Dollar Ridge Fire burns Monday near Strawberry Reservoir, Utah. The fire is threatening a cabin that Lewis and his extended family planned to spend the Fourth of July at in the Utah wilderness built nearly 50 years ago by his father and uncle. Instead, Lewis and his family will spend the holiday nervously waiting to hear if a half century of family memories go up in smoke.
A burnt-out structure is visible through the smoke as the Dollar Ridge Fire continues to burn east of Strawberry Reservoir, in Wasatch County, Utah, Tuesday, July 3.
The Dollar Ridge Fire continues to burn east of Strawberry Reservoir, in Wasatch County, Utah, on Tuesday. The blaze, which officials believe was human-caused, started Sunday about 5 miles southeast of the popular fishing spot of Strawberry Reservoir. The Utah fire comes as hot, dry conditions are fueling blazes in several Western states including in Colorado and California.
A helicopter returns for water after making a water drop on the Weston Pass Fire near Fairplay, Colorado.
A helicopter dumps water Monday as a wildfire burns near the Highland Meadows subdivision west of Cripple Creek, Colorado.
A large plume of smoke begins to build Monday afternoon from the Weston Pass Fire near Fairplay, Colorado.
Hotshot crews from Mendocino use backfires to help contain the County Fire along Highway 129 near Lake Berryessa in Yolo County, California, on Tuesday, July 3. Firefighters have been using aircraft, bulldozers and backfires to curb the blaze.
Hotshot crews from Mendocino use backfires to help contain the County Fire along Highway 129 near Lake Berryessa in Yolo County, California, on Tuesday.
Hotshot crews from Mendocino walk through a sea of tall dry grass to set backfires to help contain the County Fire along Highway 129 near Lake Berryessa in Yolo County, California, on Tuesday, July 3. Firefighters have been using aircraft, bulldozers and backfires to curb the blaze.
Hotshot crews from Mendocino use backfires to help contain the County Fire along Highway 129 near Lake Berryessa in Yolo County, California, Tuesday, July 3.
Fire burns the hillsides as the County Fire continues along Highway 129 near Lake Berryessa in Yolo County, California, Tuesday, July 3.

DENVER – A growing wildfire destroyed more than 100 homes in the Colorado mountains, while other blazes across the parched U.S. West kept hundreds of other homes under evacuation orders and derailed holiday plans.

Authorities announced late Monday that a fire near Fort Garland, about 235 miles east of Cortez, had destroyed 104 homes in a mountain housing development started by multimillionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes in the 1970s. The damage toll could rise because the area is still being surveyed.

Tamara Estes’ family cabin, which her parents had built in 1963 using wood and rocks from the land, was among the homes destroyed.

“I think it’s sinking in more now. But we’re just crying,” she said. “My grandmother’s antique dining table and her hutch are gone.”

“It was a sacred place to us,” she said.

Andy and Robyn Kuehler watched flames approach their cabin via surveillance video from their primary residence in Nebraska.

“We just got confirmation last night that the house was completely gone. It’s ... a very sickening feeling watching the fire coming towards the house,” the couple wrote in an email Tuesday.

The blaze, labeled the Spring Creek Fire, is one of six large wildfires burning in Colorado and is the largest at 123 square miles (78,720 acres) – about five times the size of Manhattan. While investigators believe it was started by a spark from a fire pit, other fires, like one that began burning in wilderness near Fairplay, were started by lightning.

The U.S. Air Force said Thursday that C-130s will fly missions out of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, joining two other C-130s that started fighting the Spring Creek Fire on Monday.

The planes can dump 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in 5 seconds.

The planes are from the Wyoming Air National Guard in Cheyenne and the Nevada Air National Guard in Reno. The two planes already on the scene are from an Air Force Reserve unit at Peterson.

Nearly 60 large, active blazes are burning across the West, including nine in New Mexico, three in Nevada, and six each in Utah and California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Near Basalt, Colorado, the Lake Christine fire has destroyed three homes and scorched 4,000 acres after officials say tracer rounds fired at a shooting range ignited the flames. Two people were ticketed.

In response to the Lake Christine Fire, more than 500 homes in the area, northwest of Aspen, have been evacuated. The fire also threatened a large power grid and a primary water source.

In Utah, authorities have evacuated 200 to 300 homes because of the growing Dollar Ridge Fire near a popular fishing reservoir southeast of Salt Lake City.

Officials say it has burned 66 square miles (42,240 square miles) and destroyed about 30 structures.

Meanwhile, the wind-fueled County Fire in Northern California continued to send a thick layer of smoke and ash south of San Francisco was threatening more than 900 buildings.

The massive blaze was choking skies with ash and smoke, prompting some officials to cancel Fourth of July fireworks shows and urge people to stay indoors to protect themselves from the unhealthy air.

At least 2,500 people have been told to evacuate as the so-called County Fire continues to spread, said Anthony Brown, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Brown said the blaze, which started Saturday and is surging through rugged terrain northwest of Sacramento, has grown to 113 square miles (72,320 acres) amid hot and dry weather expected throughout the day. It was 15 percent contained Tuesday.

“The weather is better than what we had over the weekend. But it’s still hampering our efforts and it’s an area of concern,” he said.

So far this year, wildfires have burned 4,200 square miles in the United States. That’s a bit below last year’s acreage to date – which included the beginning of California’s devastating fire season – but above the 10-year average of 3,600 square miles.

Because of the Independence Day holiday, authorities are also concerned about the possibility of campfires or fireworks starting new fires because of the dry, hot conditions. In Colorado, many communities canceled firework displays, and a number of federal public lands and counties have some degree of fire restrictions in place, banning things like campfires or smoking outdoors.

In Arizona, large swaths of national forests and state trust land have been closed since before Memorial Day. Some cities canceled fireworks displays.

In New Mexico, all or part of three national forests remain closed because of the threat of wildfire, putting a damper on camping plans. The forests that are open have strict rules, especially about fireworks.

“We’re just urging people to use extreme caution,” said Wendy Mason, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division.

Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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