Crews at Colo. wildfire get help from air

AP News
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Posted: Mar 23, 2011 6:47 PM
Crews at Colo. wildfire get help from air

Crews battling the wildfire burning in the foothills west of Denver got some help from helicopters and planes Wednesday as windy weather diminished.

Helicopters were dropping water on the fire that has burned nearly 2 square miles of steep, wooded terrain near Golden. An air crew was flying above the fire and letting firefighters on the ground know of any changes in fire behavior.

Winds gusting up to 75 mph Tuesday had grounded air support, but they have since eased.

Authorities said the strong winds actually prevented the fire from spreading because the winds caused the fire to burn back on itself.

The fire was 25 percent contained Wednesday, but incident commander Rowdy Muir said he thought the fire could be 50 to 60 percent contained in the next day or two and perhaps 80 percent Friday.

"So far, we're having a really good day," Muir said.

About 290 firefighters were assigned to the blaze, which has been burning dry grass, brush and trees since Sunday, said Jefferson County sheriff's spokeswoman Jacki Kelley.

Meteorologists say wildfires are common this time of year, when strong wind persists and vegetation is dry. Compounding that was a severe drought affecting most of Colorado east of the Rocky Mountains, including the Denver metropolitan area, the U.S. Drought Monitor said.

Still, Muir, who has been an incident commander for nine years, said this is the earliest his team has ever been mobilized.

"It's going to be a long season," he said.

"If we don't see any moisture this spring, I think you're going to see a lot of fire in this Rocky Mountain region," he said.

Colorado water officials say the potential for wildfire is high in the east and southeast parts of the state, with last year's growing season leaving behind plenty of dry fuel to burn.

"This year has already seen larger wildfires than is typical for this time of year," according to the most recent drought update of the state Water Availability Task Force.

The millions of acres of trees killed by bark beetles, the lack of moisture in some parts over the winter, and the dryness of vegetation have left Colorado vulnerable to wildfires, Muir said.

"We could see another 2002 season," he said.

That season, the largest wildfire in state history burned across 138,000 acres _ or 215 square miles _ and fires charred more than 515 square miles statewide through June.

In Longmont northwest of Denver, a small grass fire that started Wednesday morning east of U.S. 36 grew to 7 acres before it was contained. At least five Colorado counties have enacted fire bans while the strong winds and low humidity last.

Around the country, the National Interagency Fire Center reported 12 large fires burning Wednesday in eight states. As preparations begin for the busier summer season, Congress is still deciding how to fund firefighting efforts in fiscal 2011, but a House resolution recommends cuts.

In Colorado, residents of about 17 homes that were evacuated to allow easier access for fire engines in the canyons have been able to return.

People who live in foothill neighborhoods west of Golden, a Denver suburb, should remain on standby if the blaze flares up, officials said.

Officials suspect the wildfire is human-caused, though the exact cause hasn't been determined.

No injuries were reported, and no structures have burned.

While fires can happen any time of year, the heart of fire season in Colorado is typically May to September or October, when more aircraft for fighting fires are contracted and agencies hire seasonal firefighters.

Barbara Jackson said she is ready to evacuate if the wind shifts and pushes the fire toward her house, where she has lived since it was built in 1975.

"It's part of my soul," she said of her home. "I travel all over the world. I have artifacts from all over the world."