Crews contain 2 major Denver-area wildfires

AP News
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Posted: Mar 25, 2011 10:49 PM
Crews contain 2 major Denver-area wildfires

Colorado firefighters claimed two major victories Friday after battling blazes that erupted over the past several days on the Rocky Mountains' parched and windy foothills and the state's eastern plains.

Two wildfires _ one west of Denver and one southeast _ were declared contained after temporarily forcing thousands of people out of their homes. Each burned about 2.5 square miles, but neither destroyed any homes.

One of the fires broke out Thursday and spread quickly through trees, brush and grass on rolling plains 35 miles southwest of Denver before being contained Friday afternoon. About 8,500 people were told to leave their homes because the fire near Franktown, but they were allowed to return a few hours later.

The roof of one home was singed, and more than 100 horses were taken to the Douglas County fairgrounds.

Crews finished digging lines Friday evening around a blaze that started Sunday in the foothills west of Denver. Authorities ordered the evacuation of 17 homes earlier in the week but lifted the order the next day.

Fire crews were able to gain the upper hand on the Franktown fire despite strong winds, partly because a helicopter contracted by the county was able to start dropping water within about 20 minutes of the fire starting, Douglas County emergency management director Fran Santagata said.

Later, a slurry-dropping plane and another helicopter arrived to help from the fire near Golden.

Officials were afraid helicopters dropping thousands of gallons of water on the fire near Golden might loosen boulders and soil on the canyon walls, and they temporarily closed U.S. 6 Wednesday night. The highway was reopened Friday afternoon. Winds of up to 75 mph grounded aircraft working on the fire earlier in the week, but winds helped crews later when they blew the fire back on itself.

Authorities suspect both blazes were human-caused because there have been no downed power lines or lightning strikes that could have started them. Investigators in Jefferson County have set up a tip line seeking help from the public on the cause of the Golden fire.

Firefighters have also battled two larger blazes in less populated areas of the state, including one that nearly prompted the evacuation of a tiny town on Colorado's eastern plains.

The fire grew to a little more than 18 square miles before it was contained Thursday night. Earlier in the day, the approximately 100 people who live in Karval were told to evacuate but then were able stay after winds shifted, said Lincoln County sheriff's Capt. Clint Tweden.

A barn and two wooden bridges on county roads were burned. Authorities suspect the fire was started by a person along the shoulder of Colorado Highway 71.

In southern Colorado, a nearly 8-square-mile grass fire that began Thursday when strong winds knocked down a utility pole at the U.S. Army's Pueblo Chemical Depot complex was put out, said depot spokesman Charles Sprague.

No munitions at the complex were threatened, but at least 600 employees and construction workers were evacuated from a construction site and administration buildings as a precaution, Sprague said.

The fire jumped the depot perimeter and burned a shed-like structure, Sprague said. No injuries were reported.

Months of below-normal moisture have left the eastern side of the Rockies parched and susceptible to fires. Winds have quickly spread fires, and the National Weather Service has issued warnings of high fire danger for several areas east of the Rockies throughout the week.

The worry is that if spring snows and rains don't materialize, the grasses and other plants will become even more fire-prone.

At least five Colorado counties have enacted fire bans.

Authorities said Friday that two men were issued summonses for violating the ban in Boulder County. Earlier this month, about 200 homes were temporarily evacuated when a blaze broke out in the foothills west of Boulder.

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Associated Press writers P. Solomon Banda, Catherine Tsai and Dan Elliott contributed to this report.