By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Four wind-driven wildfires forced the evacuations of 271 homes in the foothills west of Denver on Friday, in what has been an active early start to the wildfire season in Colorado.
The largest blaze is burning through tinder-dry trees outside Evergreen, Colorado, Jacki Kelley, spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, told Reuters.
"It's burned only about 40 acres so far, but the winds are crazy and it's definitely burning near homes," Kelley said.
Kelley said the county's resources are stretched thin because all the fires broke out simultaneously in the late afternoon when swirling winds kicked up through the narrow mountain canyons.
Reverse 911 calls were placed to neighborhoods near the fire, and sheriff's deputies also went door-to-door telling residents to flee, Kelley said.
Meanwhile a wildfire that destroyed 15 homes in a canyon west of Fort Collins, Colorado this week is 55 percent contained, and mandatory evacuations have been lifted, fire managers said.
John Bustos, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service, said the 350 firefighters battling the Crystal Fire are knocking down hot spots within the 3,200-acre burn area.
Bustos said if winds are calm on Saturday, crews will do a "burnout," meaning they will burn remaining fuels inside the fire's perimeter.
A dry late winter and early spring, combined with trees killed by a bark-beetle infestation has put most of Colorado east of the Continental Divide at high risk for wildfires, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said this week.
"This is going to be a challenging summer," he said.
After touring the Crystal Fire, the governor declared the region a state disaster area, a designation that freed up $1.7 million for firefighting efforts.
The National Weather Service said dry, windy weather forecast for Saturday has eastern Colorado under a "red flag warning" for high risk of wildfires.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Tim Gaynor)