Hundreds Evacuated as Western Wildfires Burn

LAPORTE, Colo. (AP) -- The sun rose behind a wall of smoke from a large wildfire burning out of control in northern Colorado, while an unchecked blaze choked a small community in southern New Mexico as authorities in both regions on Monday battled fires.

Hundreds of people have evacuated their homes and dozens of buildings have been destroyed as the fires have spread rapidly, authorities say.

The Colorado fire is burning on nearly 60 square miles in a mountainous area about 15 miles west of Fort Collins. It has grown so fast and put out so much smoke that an evacuee shelter had to be moved. The blaze has damaged or destroyed at least 18 structures.

In New Mexico, a wildfire near the mountain community of Ruidoso has burned more than 40 square miles and damaged or destroyed 35 structures. Some evacuated residents were allowed to return Sunday but were warned to be ready to leave again.

Gov. Susana Martinez announced Sunday evening she was ordering 100 National Guard troops mainly to assist with evacuations. They will support the 100 guard members deployed Saturday. They will be dispatched to help at shelters or stationed at various highways where people have to be turned back, Ruidoso spokeswoman Kerry Gladden said.

Military helicopters have also been deployed to drop water at both fires in addition to air tankers dropping slurry.

Smoke from the Colorado fire spread as far away as central Nebraska, western Kansas and Texas.

Strong winds, meanwhile, grounded aircraft the New Mexico fire on Sunday.

Dan Ware, a spokesman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division, said the number of Ruidoso evacuees was in the hundreds, but he didn't have an exact figure.

Karen Takai, a spokeswoman for the Ruidoso fire crews, said smoke is heavily impacting the community of Capitan, about 5 miles to the northeast. She said Capitan and others could also face evacuation.

"Any communities around this fire have the potential of being evacuated," she said. "If I lived in Capitan, I definitely would be prepared. Don't wait until the sheriff's office comes knocking at your door and tells you to evacuate."

Both fires were dwarfed by the Whitewater-Baldy blaze in southwest New Mexico - the largest in the state's history - that has charred 450 square miles of wilderness forest since mid-May. But the smaller blazes were especially concerning because they started much closer to more populated areas.

Elsewhere Monday, firefighters were battling a wildfire that blackened 6 square miles in Wyoming's Guernsey State Park and forced the evacuation of between 500 and 1,000 campers and visitors.

In Colorado, authorities sent nearly 1,800 evacuation notices to phone numbers but it wasn't clear how many residents had to leave. About 500 people had checked in at Red Cross shelters. Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said there was an unconfirmed report of a person unaccounted for, but he wouldn't elaborate.

Authorities say it's the worst fire seen in Larimer County in about 25 years. It spread as fast as 1 1/2 miles an hour Saturday, skipping over some areas but burning intensely in trees in others. Flames were coming dangerously close to deputies who were telling some residents to evacuate, Smith said.

Kathie Walter and her husband helped friends several miles away evacuate from the Colorado fire on Saturday. When they got home, they were surprised to get a call warning them to be ready to evacuate just in case. But Walter didn't want to wait.

"Smoke was coming in hard. We could not see flames or orange or black smoke. But we didn't need to see anymore. We just said `Hey, let's get out of here,'" she said.

They evacuated with their five cats and two dogs. They had a head start. After a wildfire in the area last year, they had left two suitcases packed in their garage.

Elaine Mantle and her family got a call to evacuate their Bellvue home at 5:45 a.m. Sunday. It took about 30 minutes for them to get out and reach a spillover shelter at the Budweiser Event Center in Loveland. Evacuees gathered there for a fire briefing, sipping coffee and eating bananas and powdered doughnuts, in a large gymnasium-like space.

It was the Mantles' first evacuation in the 25 years that they have lived in the mountains, and they were grateful to be safe.

"We're all here, we're all OK. Our neighbors are all here. We feel good," Mantle said.

The fire is the latest to hit Colorado's drought-stricken Front Range. In May, a fire set by a camper's stove charred 12 square miles in the same Poudre Canyon area. In March, a fire sparked by a prescribed burn 25 miles southwest of Denver killed three people and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes.

Eight air tankers - including two from Canada - and several helicopters were on the scene to help fight the blaze.

The U.S. Forest Service added four tankers, including two from Canada, to its firefighting fleet last week following the crash of a tanker that killed two pilots fighting a wildfire in southern Utah.

Authorities say they're competing for resources that have been diluted by several wildfires burning across the West.

"Resources are thin right now," said Nick Christensen of the Larimer County Sheriff's Office. "We are trying to get more of everything at this point."

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Associated Press writers Thomas Peipert in Denver and Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix contributed to this report.


Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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