The Heat Is Online

Governor Declares Worst Wildfire in Colorado History

Fire threatens Denver suburbs

Thousands remain evacuated from their homes, June 12, 2002

DENVER, Colorado (CNN) -- Tendrils of thick smoke settled into the nooks and crannies of the Rocky Mountain foothills near Denver Wednesday as an out-of-control wildfire knocked at the door of the Mile High City's southern suburbs.

The smoke from the 87,000-acre Hayman fire shrouded the peaks of North America's continent-dividing mountain range and pushed a heavy haze toward the Colorado capital.

More than 5,000 people have been evacuated from the area about 35 miles south of Denver -- and hundreds more are on notice that they may be the next to leave their homes.

Sgt. Tim Moore of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department said that no order for a new wave of evacuations was "imminent."

"Right now we're just in a kind of a holding pattern," he said. "Up until about 2 p.m., the weather conditions should remain favorable ... after 2 the winds could be up to 15 to 20 mph. But that's just a crystal ball theory."

Moore said that overnight and early morning conditions had been favorable to firefighters, and that the Forest Service was readying its strategy for Wednesday's onslaught against the fire.

"I think they're planning aerial assaults on the northeast and west sides of the fire to try to keep it from some of the more populated areas, areas that are more likely to burn quickly," he said." Those operations, too, Moore said, depend on the weather's stability.

But the Hayman fire was just one of several blazing across the Colorado tinderbox. At least seven fires have scorched a total of more than 150,000 acres in the Rocky Mountain state.

But firefighters were gaining the upper hand on the worst of those fires -- the 30,000-acre Trinidad complex fire near the New Mexico state line, now expected to be completely under control by Friday, and the 10,000 acre Coal Seam fire, 160 miles west of Denver, that has torched 38 structures.

Residents of the Glenwood Springs area, evacuated when the Coal Seam fire threatened, are now returning to their homes.

An illegal campfire near Lake George sparked the Hayman fire Saturday, and it rapidly overwhelmed the dry pine and conifer stands of Pike National Forest on its way to becoming the largest wildfire in the history of the state.

To date, the fire has burned 21 structures and threatens more than 3,000 more.

The towns of Deckers, Trumble, Oxyoke, Dome Rock, Pine and Sphinx Park were evacuated, with communities between Pine and Conifer and in Roxborough Park, Perry Park and the Sedalia area put on notice.

One positive development took place on the northeast end of the fire, where the blaze moved into areas that were burned earlier this year in two fires -- one a controlled burn designed to reduce wildfire danger, said U.S. Forest Service official Rick Cables.

That has "has slowed the spread there, and we've got our fingers crossed," he said.

The Coal Seam fire, apparently sparked by an underground fire in a seam of coal that has been smoldering for a number of years, has overlapped the path of the 1994 Storm King fire, in which 14 firefighters were killed when the winds changed the direction of the fire, trapping the men in the blaze.

One official said that was why firefighters were not deploying in front of the current blazes.

Half the state of Colorado is under a fire threat rated in the extreme category, with the rest of Rocky Mountain state earning a high to very high fire danger rating from the U.S. Forest Service.

13,000 urged to flee Denver-area fire


DENVER, June 11 — Fearing winds would pick up and refuel a massive fire, officials on Tuesday urged 13,000 residents south of Denver to evacuate their homes. Shifting winds late Monday had slowed the fire’s advance and allowed officials to call off the evacuation of 40,000 residents. But the fire — described as the largest blaze in Colorado history — remained just 20 miles south of Denver, which was blanketed by yellow smoke.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office issued a warning Tuesday morning urging more than 13,000 residents in and around the town of Sedalia to evacuate, but stopping short of ordering them to leave. Sedalia is 20 miles south of Denver.

Fire officials said it was still too dangerous to allow firefighters in the path of the 77,000-acre blaze that started in the Pike National Forest. "There is such a tremendous amount of heat that you can’t put firefighters on the ground in front of it," said fire information officer Tony Diffenbaugh.

A change of wind direction had turned the fire back on itself late Monday, but officials feared the wind would return on Tuesday, with gusts to 30 mph, and intensify the blaze again, said Diffenbaugh.

"This fire is totally dominated by Mother Nature, all wind-driven and because of the drought conditions it’s that much more unpredictable," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Susan Haywood.


Before the fire turned Monday, officials had feared they would have to order the evacuation of up to 40,000 residents.

In Denver, the air smelled like a campfire and the rising sun was obscured by a smoky haze. Ash fell across southern Denver, where many complained of shortness of breath or throat and eye irritation.

Heavier smoke hung over communities east of Lake George, where the fire started, forcing motorists to turn on their lights during the day Monday.

Several residents of Roxborough, a tiny town on the far southwestern edge of the metro area, packed their belongings and stuffed them into cars after they were told they might be evacuated.

"I take this very seriously. A few things are important. If the rest of it burns, it burns," said Timothy Munn.

Gov. Bill Owens said the fire is believed to be the largest in Colorado history.

It was one of at least eight fires in Colorado, including a 10,000-acre blaze that destroyed 24 homes and sent residents fleeing in Glenwood Springs.


As the blaze bore down on Denver Monday, it split around Cheesman Reservoir, one of the city’s main water sources, and formed western and eastern forks. About 1,000 people fled their homes, and roughly 3,700 structures were threatened.

Several structures were destroyed, but fire officials didn’t have a firm figure. "Part of the problem is we just haven’t been able to get in there and see," said Joe Colwell, a fire information officer.

The Forest Service on Monday closed the Pike National Forest indefinitely for the first time in at least a quarter century. Owens issued a statewide ban on fires and fireworks and closed three state parks.

The fire was started by a campfire in the Pike forest about 60 miles southwest of Denver.

About 400 people worked early Tuesday to dig a containment line around the fire’s calmer southern edge and also tried to slow its northward charge. The blaze was about 5 percent contained.

Investigators didn’t identify the person suspected of making the campfire that ignited the wildfire Saturday. Campfires are prohibited on forest land in most counties because of Colorado’s severe drought.


Other major fires troubling Colorado include one near Glenwood Springs, where most of the 3,000 residents forced to leave their homes were allowed to return Monday night, even though officials hoped they wouldn’t because fire danger was still high.

The fire started Saturday when a long-smoldering underground coal fire burst to the surface and raced through dry brush and trees.

Some residents chose not to return to their homes.

"I don’t want them to have to take care of me," said Bill Lorah, who lives in

West Glenwood. "They should be taking care of the fire. The less they have to worry about me the more they can worry about the fire."

Wind died down enough Monday to allow air tankers to bombard the fire, near the site of a 1994 fire that killed 14 firefighters.

Elsewhere in Colorado:

Near Durango, a fire on a 10,000-foot-high mountain ridge torched 8,200 acres and was threatening 55 residences Tuesday. One summer cabin was destroyed.

Near Grand Junction, 230 homes were ordered evacuated after wind contributed to significant growth of several fires that combined into one 2,200 acre blaze.

Near Stonewall, 250 residences were threatened by a complex of fires that had burned through some 30,000 acres.


In California, a 600-acre wildfire near Etna raged out of control in steep terrain close to the Oregon state line while week-old blazes that have blackened nearly 45,000 acres of brush and forest land throughout the state were nearly contained.

In New Mexico, about 1,100 firefighters, dozens of engines and a fleet of water-dropping helicopters have been working to slow a wildfire burning on the Philmont Scout Ranch and Carson National Forest. That blaze has charred 85,000 acres.

The National Weather Service had a good news, bad news forecast for the West. "The good news is, we’re going to see less wind in the southwest, west and Colorado," forecaster Larry van Bussum told NBC News. "The bad news is, it’s going to be hot and dry for the rest of the week."

40,000 Evacuated From Denver Blaze

The Associated Press, June 10, 2002

DENVER -- A wind-whipped wildfire prompted authorities to order the evacuation of up to 40,000 people Monday from their homes along the southwestern edge of the Denver metropolitan area.

The 61,000-acre fire roared to within 10 miles of residential neighborhoods. Firefighters were pulled off the lines because it was too dangerous, and a mandatory evacuation was ordered from homes near Roxborough State Park, the U.S. Forest Service said.

The fire was started by an illegal campfire Saturday in Pike National Forest 55 miles southwest of Denver.

The fire was one of at least eight burning in Colorado, including an 8,300-acre blaze that destroyed 24 homes and sent residents fleeing in Glenwood Springs, near Storm King Mountain.

It was 5 percent contained Monday as airplanes resumed bombing the flames with retardant. The fire destroyed 40 structures, including 24 homes. About 3,000 residents were ordered to evacuate over the weekend.

No injuries were reported at Glenwood Springs, but firefighters there were especially cautious because of memories of the Storm King fire that killed 14 firefighters on similarly dry, steep terrain in 1994.

Southwest of Denver, the fire doubled in size overnight Sunday. Nearly 300 firefighters were on the lines, and more crews were ordered into place. Four bombers and four helicopters dropped fire retardant and water.

A shift in winds lifted the yellow haze that hung over the Denver on Sunday, said Christopher Dann, a spokesman for the region's Air Pollution Control Division.

Campfires have been banned in national forests and most counties because of severe drought.

Copyright © 2002, The Associated Press

Colorado wildfire forces evaucation of town, June 10, 2002

DENVER - A rapidly moving wildfire in western Colorado forced the evacuation of 2,000 local residents and closed an interstate highway on the weekend, fire officials said.

The fire broke out in a mountain canyon about 5 miles (8 km) west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, about 170 miles (274 km) west of Denver. It has destroyed five homes and one commercial building, said Liz Mauch, spokeswoman for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management team.

"This was apparently an underground coal fire that burned to the surface and caught some oak brush vegetation," Mauch said.

Flames from the blaze, which has consumed 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of land, jumped across Interstate 70, forcing its closure for 30 miles (48 km) in both directions, she said. The 2,000 residents of West Glenwood were evacuated Saturday night.

Ground crews from local, state and federal agencies were on the scene. Two aerial tankers dropped fire retardant slurry at nightfall after high winds and dense smoke grounded the planes earlier, Mauch said.

Ten new wildfires erupted in the drought-stricken state on the weekend. About 800 wildfires have seared 100,000 acres (40,000 hectares) of forest and grassland in Colorado this year. The federal government has designated the entire state a disaster area.


Thousands Evacuated as Fires Rage in Colorado

The New York Times, June 10, 2002

DENVER, June 9 — Wildfires continued to blaze throughout Colorado today, with thousands of people evacuated and dozens of houses and other structures destroyed.

"It's smoky all across Colorado today," said Gov. Bill Owens, who visited one fire and flew over two others this afternoon. "It's a pretty lousy day. This is a potential tragedy of epic proportions, and the fire season isn't even upon us."

Record-breaking temperatures, high winds and drought have made fires an almost daily occurrence in recent weeks in Colorado.

In Glenwood Springs, about 160 miles west of Denver, about 3,000 people were evacuated today and Saturday as a fire burned through the steep canyons on the west side of town. With temperatures in the 90's and winds blowing 30 to 40 miles per hour, the fire spread to more than 7,500 acres today.

The fire has prompted the evacuation statewide of about 5,000 people, including tourists, and about 100 National Guardsmen have been dispatched to help secure the streets.

Interstate 70 was closed in both directions for about 60 miles from Saturday night until midday today because of thick smoke that hampered visibility. Officials estimated that the fire had destroyed more than 20 houses and a dozen outbuildings by this afternoon.

"I would say the mood is tense," said Nan Sundeen, a spokeswoman for the Garfield County Sheriff's Office. "This fire is very threatening and real, with homes and structures burning, and it's only early June."

The fire is believed to have been caused by a fire in an underground coal seam that has been burning for more than 100 years and has caused previous wildfires. In 1994, the Storm King Mountain fire here killed 14 firefighters.

"When I heard the fire was burning in the same area it was a very sobering moment," said Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "I had the thought, `Oh no, please not there.' Perhaps it's a good reminder to be safe and how quickly the situation can change."

Erratic winds made it impossible for air tankers to fight the coal seam fire from above, and hand crews and trucks were trying to contain its spread on the ground.

In Denver, the State Health Department issued an ozone alert and warned people with respiratory conditions to remain indoors as acrid smoke and ash blew over the area. With the sun masked by the smoke and turning a bright orange, Governor Owens said the scene looked like "a nuclear winter."

That smoke was from a fire near Lake George, about 60 miles southwest of Denver. Although there is a statewide ban on open fires, that fire was traced to a campfire. The fire was spotted on Saturday evening, when it had burned about 25 acres. By today it had spread to more than 7,000 acres.

Thousands evacuated as Colorado wildfire spreads

Trailer parks damaged; high wind's effect feared

The Boston Globe, June 10, 2002

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. - Twenty homes were destroyed and 2,000 people evacuated from this resort area yesterday as a wind-fanned wildfire raged at the base of Storm King Mountain.

No injuries were reported. Much of the damage was in trailer parks, said Nan Sundeen, spokeswoman for agencies fighting the fire.

The Colorado National Guard sent 100 soldiers to control access and security.

With flames visible on the hillside above during a news conference at the Garfield County Courthouse, officials said they feared afternoon high winds, more than 40 miles per hour, would complicate the task of fighting the fire.

''We are a little bit better prepared to address that but we're still at the whim of the winds and what Mother Nature has to offer,'' said fire boss Frankie Romero.

For residents of the area, between Vail and Aspen, the flames were a painful reminder of the 1994 fire on Storm King Mountain that killed 14 firefighters.

''Obviously Storm King was a very difficult and destructive fire for this community and we still bear those scars. This fire is very reminiscent of that,'' said Sheriff Tom Dalessandri.

Mike Henry, a real estate agent, said there were flames in his backyard when he fled Saturday night. ''Based on the situation as I left, I have very little doubt there wasn't at least some damage to my house,'' he said.

Sundeen said the wildfire had quieted down as temperatures dropped and humidity increased overnight. It was believed to cover 4,000 to 7,000 acres yesterday morning.

Interstate 70, Colorado's main east-west route, was closed to westbound traffic.

The fire reported Saturday apparently was ignited by underground coal that had been burning for years, said Liz Mauch, spokeswoman for the Grand Junction Interagency Fire Dispatch Center.

Another fire that spread to at least 1,500 acres in Park and Teller counties in central Colorado destroyed one structure and forced the evacuation of 20 homes, two campgrounds, and a Girl Scout ranch, said fire information officer Mit Parsons. Smoke from the fire was visible in Denver, 60 miles away. ''It is growing very, very rapidly,'' Parsons said.

About 100 firefighters were battling the blaze, believed to have been started by a campfire Saturday evening.

In western Colorado, an 850-acre fire was threatening oil and gas wells, Parsons said. He said the blaze north of Mack in Garfield County was burning in a sparsely populated area.

Farther south, a complex of two fires near Trinidad had consumed nearly 30,000 acres. Parsons said the fires were between 72 and 80 percent contained; no structures have been lost.

In northeastern New Mexico, firefighters worked to keep a 72,000-acre wildfire from moving any closer to the town of Ute Park before temperatures rose and winds picked up yesterday afternoon, fire information officer Mike Ferris said.

This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 6/10/2002.