Firefighters struggle against major blazes in two Western states

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 22, 2012 5:10 PM
Firefighters struggle against major blazes in two Western states

By Jennifer Dobner

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Firefighters in Utah and Colorado struggled on Saturday to contain raging wildfires stoked by high winds, which have forced the evacuation of more than 2,000 people in Utah and burned some 200 dwellings in Colorado.

Fanned by winds, the so-called Dump Fire about 35 miles south of Salt Lake City, Utah grew to 5,600 acres on Saturday from 4,000 late Friday, and was only about 30 percent contained, Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Cami Lee said.

In neighboring Colorado, firefighters grappling with the High Park Fire, a 75,537-acre blaze burning in steep mountain canyons west of Fort Collins, braced for another round of hot temperatures, low humidity and erratic winds on Saturday.

"Fire activity is expected to increase in the afternoon," according to the federal fire incident command center.

Late Friday afternoon, wind-stoked flames jumped containment lines and roared through a subdivision, destroying an estimated nine homes, Larimer County Sheriff's Office spokesman John Schulz said.

The additional property losses bring to 200 the number of dwellings lost in the two weeks since the lightning-sparked blaze was first spotted in Colorado.

The Utah fire is burning primarily south and west of Saratoga Springs, where wind gusts of up to 35 miles per hour were expected to confound firefighting efforts, Lee said.

Officials say target shooters triggered the blaze near a city landfill on Thursday. It is the 20th fire in Utah started by target shooting this year, they said.

But on Saturday they revised down substantially the number of people evacuated in Saratoga Springs and nearby Eagle Mountain. Some 588 homes were evacuated in the two towns on Friday affecting up to 2,500 residents, according to Jason Curry of Utah's office of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

On Friday, officials had said up to 8,000 people were evacuated. The substantial change followed a more accurate count, Curry said.

Utah officials will decide later in the day if any residents will be allowed to return home, Lee said.

"We're waiting to see what the winds do," she said. "We have a lot of unburned areas between the fire area and the homes and with the high winds, things can always change quickly."

Some 450 firefighters were on the ground Saturday in Utah, with support from two air tankers and several helicopters, Lee said. One firefighter had suffered minor burns, but no other injuries had been reported.

The Colorado fire is blamed for the death of a 62-year-old grandmother who perished in her mountain cabin. The High Park Fire is already the state's most destructive and the second-largest on record in Colorado.

Incident commander Bill Hahnenberg said crews deployed in the narrow Colorado canyons had to retreat on Friday when the fire blew up and they could no longer protect homes.

"We had a very difficult time," Hahnenberg said.

The fire is burning on private land and on sections of the Roosevelt National Forest.

As of Friday, there were 15 large, uncontained wildfires being fought across the country, most in six Western states - Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona - the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, reported.

Although federal authorities say the fire season got off to an early start this summer in parts of the Northern Rockies, the acreage burned nationwide is about on par with the 10-year average for this time of year, according to fire agency records.

The biggest by far is the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire in New Mexico, that state's largest on record, which has charred almost 300,000 acres. That blaze is nearly 90 percent contained.

(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Greg McCune and Jackie Frank)