3 die in Colorado wildfires

April 16, 2008 9:11:20 AM PDT
Firefighters resumed the battle Wednesday against three wildfires that blazed across thousands of acres of grass, forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate and leading to the deaths of two firefighters and a pilot.

One of the fires was unchecked and still growing Wednesday morning.

Wind gusted up to 50 mph along the Rocky Mountain Front Range and eastern plains on Tuesday, fanning flames that had spread across 8,900 acres - or 14 square miles - of grassland near Ordway. Authorities told all 1,200 residents of the town to leave, and they had not been allowed back in Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, wind was blowing at less than 10 mph at Pueblo, about 50 miles west of Ordway, the National Weather Service said. 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.

Firefighters had contained 80 percent of the Ordway blaze, which damaged at least 24 buildings, eight within town limits, fire information officer Katherine Sanguinetti said.

Two volunteer firefighters were killed when a bridge damaged by flames collapsed under their fire truck, state Rep. Cory Gardner, whose district includes Ordway, told legislative leaders Wednesday.

No containment lines had been established around a fire at the Army's Fort Carson that had charred 9,600 acres - about 15 square miles - by Wednesday morning, El Paso County sheriff's Sgt. Jeanette Whitney said.

A firefighting plane crashed Tuesday near Fort Carson, killing the pilot, and people living near the base had been forced to evacuate.

Authorities could not say how many people had been evacuated at the Fort Carson fire, but none had been allowed back into their homes. About 300 firefighters were at the fire, Whitney said.

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, had damaged at least two homes. A fisherman suffered minor injuries. It had blackened about 1,000 acres. Containment was estimated at about 25 percent.

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, fire information officer Chris Sorensen said.

Armed with a chain saw, 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."

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.

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 Age

Associated Press writers P. Solomon Banda, George Merritt and Catherine Tsai in Denver contributed to this report.