Colorado, USA — Firefighters hoped rain and snow Wednesday would help them stop wildfires that blazed through thousands of acres of grass, forced hundreds of residents to evacuate and left three people dead.
Wind gusted up to 50 mph along the Rocky Mountain Front Range and eastern plains on Tuesday, fanning flames that quickly spread across 7,100 acres _ or 11 square miles _ of grassland near Ordway. Authorities told all 1,200 residents of the town to leave.
On Wednesday morning, wind was blowing at less than 10 mph at Pueblo, about 50 miles west of Ordway, the National Weather Service said.
By late Tuesday, firefighters had contained 50 percent of the blaze, which damaged at least 20 buildings, four within town limits, fire information officer Chris Sorensen said.
Officials said two people died in the Ordway fire, though they didn’t immediately release details. A firefighting plane crashed near Fort Carson, killing the pilot, who was battling a blaze there that charred 9,000 acres _ about 14 square miles _ and forced the evacuation of people living near the Army base.
The Fort Carson fire raged unchecked late Tuesday, said Capt. Gregory Dorman, a base spokesman. Two shelters were set up at the post and a third at a nearby community college to house evacuees. The cause of the fire at the base outside Colorado Springs, about 60 miles south of Denver, hadn’t been determined.
A third fire, near Carbondale in the western Colorado mountains, damaged at least two homes and injured one person, though the nature of the injury wasn’t known.
Rain was possible in parts of the area during the afternoon and there was a chance of up to a foot of snow in Colorado’s eastern mountains beginning Wednesday evening and lasting into Thursday morning, the weather service said.
All but a handful of Ordway residents had left for the nearby communities of Sugar City and Crowley, where officials set up a shelter. An unknown number of residents were allowed to remain in a nursing care facility in a section of Ordway not threatened by the fire, Sorensen said.
Armed with a chainsaw, shovel and hose, Brian Walker stood ready to save his house from the flames.
“Well, I got a yard, and I got a home and I want to keep it,” said Walker, 45. “I thought if the fire came, I thought I could do whatever I could to stop it.”
Helicopter footage showed at least three houses fully engulfed in flames near the town about 120 miles southeast of Denver. Two state highways were closed.
At least three heavy air tankers, each capable of carrying up to 2,500 gallons of fire retardant, were sent to Ordway, said Steve Segin, a spokesman with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which helps with wildfire response.
Crowley County Sheriff Miles Clark said he asked the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to help investigate the cause.
All three fires broke out after a wetter than normal winter was followed by a dry March.
Gov. Bill Ritter declared a state of emergency, freeing up state resources to help fight the fires. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also agreed to provide money for the firefighting efforts.
The wildfire near Carbondale, in the mountains about 120 miles west of Denver, blackened about 300 acres. The fire, which officials had earlier estimated at 1,000 acres, was about 25 percent contained late Tuesday.