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Firefighters prepare for the worst in Colorado

Thousands remain evacuated from their homes

wildfires
A slurry bomber is dwarfed by a 17,000-foot smoke cloud above the Hayman forest fire outside Lake George, Colorado.  


DENVER, Colorado (CNN) -- A 90,000-acre wildfire danced closer to Denver's southern suburbs Wednesday, and fire officials called the prospect of a 200,000-acre fire "very realistic" if weather conditions worsened.

The Hayman fire is one of at least eight currently ravaging Colorado and has become the worst in Colorado's history. The northern edge of the fire was 35 miles south of Denver on Wednesday afternoon. and already has caused an estimated $20 million in damage.

"If the winds were to change right now, come out of the south, all along the north end of this fire you've probably got a 15-mile front," said Ron Railey, commander of firefighting units fighting the northern section of the huge blaze. "That could very rapidly spread."

More than 500 firefighters already were battling the Hayman fire, and authorities have called for 1,800 more, Railey said.

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The idea of a rapidly spreading fire alarmed residents and officials alike. More than 5,000 people already have been evacuated from the area, and hundreds more are waiting to hear whether they will be next to flee.

"That scares me to death," said Larkspur resident Lori Abbott. "It would be absolutely devastating if any of us lost our homes."

Abbott said her family was reluctant to leave but prepared to if necessary -- an attitude that authorities said is crucial.

"The most important thing is for Coloradans to pay attention to local authorities," said Federal Emergency Management Agency director Joe Allbaugh, who toured the area Tuesday with Gov. Bill Owens. "If they say evacuate, then you need to evacuate."

Allbaugh said the Hayman fire, scorching tinderbox-dry pine and conifer forest land since Saturday, was "absolutely the worst fire I have ever seen in my life."

Douglas County Sheriff's Sgt. Tim Moore said that fresh evacuation orders were not imminent, even though communities between Pine and Conifer and in Roxborough Park, Perry Park and the Sedalia area have been put on standby.

"Right now, we're just in a kind of a holding pattern," he said.

Thousands remain evacuated from their homes

Firefighters took advantage of low winds and low temperatures early Wednesday, taking to the air with helicopter-borne flame retardant and building battle lines between the out-of-control wildfire and Denver's southern suburbs.

Railey, however, cautioned that firefighters were planning for the possibility the Hayman fire could eventually reach 200,000 acres.

"Given the same weather set on the day that it burned 60,000 acres, there's not much man can do," he said. That 60,000-acre day was Monday, when winds whipped the flames rapidly toward Denver.

An illegal campfire near Lake George in Pike National Forest sparked the Hayman fire Saturday, and it rapidly overwhelmed the dry trees. 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 have been evacuated.

One positive development took place Tuesday 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 slowed the spread of the fire there, "and we've got our fingers crossed," he said.

The fires that dotted the Colorado landscape at midweek were scorching a total of more than 150,000 acres in the Rocky Mountain state.

Firefighters were gaining the upper hand on the worst of the other fires -- the 30,000-acre Trinidad complex fire near the New Mexico state line, now expected to be fully controlled 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.

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 and women in the blaze.

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



 
 
 
 






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