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THE NATION

Fires Tear Through Colorado Forests

June 10, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — A ferocious and unpredictable wildfire continued to burn out of control near the resort town of Glenwood Springs on Sunday, and for a second day a capricious wind bedeviled all efforts to battle the blaze from the air.

The fast-moving fire--which destroyed 25 homes and consumed more than 7,500 acres in 24 hours--was one of a dozen that erupted in Colorado over the weekend. A second major blaze that began burning in the Pike National Forest 50 miles southwest of Denver devoured 25,000 acres of pine trees and moved rapidly toward the city, causing evacuations as it blasted through an area thick with summer cabins and mountain homes. No structures were lost.

Both fires were at zero containment, and both flared anew as winds kicked up in the afternoon.

Thick clouds of smoke covered the region, traveling as far as southern Wyoming. By midafternoon Sunday, Denver's skies turned dark and wind-borne ash fell in parts of the city; the plume of smoke from the Pike fire rose to 15,000 feet.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens likened the sight to a "nuclear winter."

Hospitals were handling scores of cases of respiratory distress and anxious residents' calls swamped emergency lines. The state health department advised residents to stay indoors.

Still another blaze in southwest Colorado had burned 2,000 acres near Durango. Several hikers were airlifted out of the area.

In the same part of the state, another blaze was threatening oil and gas fields. Yet another group of fires that had been burning for more than a week continued to scorch upward of 30,000 acres in the southern part of the state. Six of the wildfires were being fought by federal crews.

A 70-mile section of Interstate 70--the state's major east-west highway--was closed most of the day Sunday, stranding thousands of travelers and truckers. Guardrails and road signs were burning along the highway, as were railroad ties on the Southern Pacific line.

Glenwood Springs already has been declared a federal disaster area, and most of Colorado was on extreme fire alert Sunday. Earlier this month the state was declared a disaster area because of the persistent drought. Despite a statewide ban on open fires, the blaze south of Denver is thought to have been started by a campfire.

Authorities believe the Glenwood Springs blaze broke out when a fire smoldering in an underground coal seam broke through the ground and ignited dry oak brush Saturday afternoon. The coal fire has been burning for about 30 years, officials said, and has been responsible for a number of fires.

Glenwood Springs--a town of about 7,700 perched at the mouth of the spectacular Glenwood Canyon--was bisected by the fire. Many residents were caught away from their homes and could not cross the fire line; visitors were unable to leave. A vintage railroad that ferries tourists through the canyon to the hot springs was shut down out of concern that sparks from the train could ignite a fire.

The historic downtown was spared but remained surrounded by fire Sunday. Most hotels were evacuated--along with 2,000 residents--and many businesses were closed. Dozens of onlookers lined the bridge that spans the Colorado River and watched as trees exploded in fireballs.

Susan O'Connell stood watch over her empty hotel Sunday, keeping an eye on the flames advancing across a ridgeline.

"There are two walls of fire around us," she said, looking out her window. "We are in the middle.... We're just praying."

More than 100 National Guard troops were dispatched to assist the Garfield County sheriff with security. No injuries were reported.

The fire began in the same area as the 1994 blaze on Storm King Mountain that killed 14 firefighters. The current fire started on the lower slopes and quickly engulfed residences at two mobile home parks. It was reported around noon Saturday in the village of West Glenwood Springs, and within hours the hills were ablaze.

In the face of menacing smoke and flames, residents and visitors rushed to evacuate long before authorities made the call.

Richard M. Pappas described the scene: "Heavy smoke was coming in, emergency vehicles were everywhere, the interstate was shut down and traffic in town was bumper to bumper. No one knew which direction to go. People just got out of their cars and began walking.... It was panic."

Pappas, the chief of security for the Hotel Colorado, said he evacuated all of the hotel's 250 guests into city buses at 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Pappas, a desk clerk, the head of housekeeping, two maids and a chef remained to stand guard.

"We've got a place to sleep and the chef will cook for us," Pappas said. "We're better off than most."

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