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Colorado Fire Rages Out of Control; More Evacuations Possible

Disaster: With the blaze near Denver's suburbs, Gov. Owens reassures residents the city is not at risk. At least 30 more homes are burned.

June 13, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — While the massive 90,000-acre wildfire lingering near Denver's southern suburbs is still burning erratically, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said Wednesday that the city itself is not threatened.

The Hayman fire is once again burning out of control and thick columns of smoke and strong winds prevented slurry planes from getting airborne. Firefighters worked parts of the fire throughout the day, but officials said little progress was made against what they call a "weather-driven fire."

The southern end of the blaze continued to trouble firefighters. At least 30 homes were burned Wednesday near Lake George, about 120 miles south of Denver. A small subdivision called Turkey Rock in Teller County was overrun by flames during a sudden wind shift, authorities said.

"The wind kicked up, and when that happens there's not much you can do," said Kathy Hardy of the U.S. Forest Service.

That brought the total to 51 residences destroyed, a figure officials say will rise as crews are able to view the burned area. The Hayman fire started Saturday and was believed to have been caused by an illegal campfire.

The fire remained about 35 miles southwest of the Denver metro area and about seven miles from residential areas in the fast-growing southern suburbs.

Owens--who has been roundly criticized by business and tourism groups here for overstating the extent of the fires--reassured the state and the nation that Denver was not threatened by the fire, which covers 136 square miles.

The pronouncement offered little solace to residents of the outlying areas, where more than 6,000 people have been evacuated from four counties.

Fire officials continue to warn that more than 30,000 residents still are in the path of the fire and could be evacuated.

More firefighters were called in and 1,800 were expected to be battling the blaze today.

Officials put firefighting costs so far at $20 million.

Federal officials said that, if the dangerous fire conditions continue, they will consider closing public lands in the Rocky Mountain region, home to some of the nation's most-used national parks and forests.

Even as Denver appeared to be spared from the fire, it was not immune from its effects. Smoke and ash fell on the city earlier in the week, causing respiratory distress among some residents.

A longer-term concern is the protection of the city's water supply. Water officials fretted that Denver's principle reservoir was compromised by the fires that burned through the 8,500-acre watershed.

Ash already was fouling the water, but officials said their real fear is what will happen when rain falls. The smallest storm will bring charred debris into the reservoir.

"The bad news for firefighters is there's been no rain; the good news for us is there's been no rain," said Steve Work, operations manager for the Denver Water Board.

Work said a major fire in 1996 sent massive amounts of debris into the water system--including outhouses, propane tanks and tree trunks.

It took a month to remove everything and the effort cost millions of dollars.

The ash, debris and sediment can be filtered, he said, but it is very expensive to clean the water so that it is drinkable.

"It's purely a matter of weather right now," Work said.

"But it's going to be a long-term concern. The Forest Service tells us it takes 20 years for a forest to heal itself."

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