Wildfires gut 100 buildings in Colorado, menace New Mexico town

Mon Jun 11, 2012 7:58pm EDT

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(Reuters) - A wildfire caused by lightening that has engulfed scores of buildings and left one person missing roared unchecked for a third day through the Colorado mountains north of Denver on Monday, and hundreds of residents remained evacuated.

Fueled by tinder-dry vegetation and fanned by erratic winds, the so-called High Park Fire nearly doubled in size, leaving 57 square miles (147 sq km) of forest blackened northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado, near the Wyoming border, said Larimer County Sheriff's spokesman Nick Christensen.

Hundreds of miles to the south in central New Mexico, firefighters raced to the southern flank of a separate wildfire burning out of control in the Lincoln National Forest as flames crept closer to the resort town of Ruidoso.

About 1,500 people fled over the weekend from several communities on the northern and western fringe of the New Mexico blaze, dubbed the Little Bear Fire, officials said.

That fire, also caused by lightning, was burning in the same area where firefighters in 1944 rescued the orphaned bear cub that became known as "Smokey Bear," a symbol of the U.S. Forest Service and the government's fire-prevention campaign.

"We have 13 types of aircraft in the air, and we're hitting it with everything we have to keep it from the village of Ruidoso," said fire information officer Sean Parker.

The Colorado wildfire, at 37,000 acres and growing, has already caused significant property damage.

At least 100 structures have been consumed, including an undetermined number of homes, and one person has been missing since the blaze erupted, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said.

That person lives in a neighborhood where houses are known to have been destroyed, but hazardous conditions have prevented crews from conducting a thorough search of the area.

TREETOP FLAMES, PLUMES OF SMOKE

Firefighters reported flames consistently leaping 15 to 20 feet in length, with some 300-foot-tall flames arcing from treetop to treetop as the blaze advanced at the rate of about a mile an hour, Christensen said.

Ignited by lightning late Friday night or early Saturday morning, the High Park Fire has forced hundreds of residents to flee their homes, and evacuation orders were not expected to be lifted anytime soon, the sheriff's office said. As of Monday afternoon, fire crews had yet to achieve any measure of containment around the blaze.

Hazy smoke wafted into the Denver metropolitan area to the south on Monday, prompting state health officials to issue an air-quality alert, warning people with pulmonary ailments to avoid prolonged outdoor activities.

A smoke plume from the blaze drifted as far north as South Dakota, officials said.

The blaze has become one of the nation's highest-priority fires, with some 400 ground crews and more than a dozen air tankers and helicopters battling the flames from the air.

Federal incident commander Bill Hahnenberg said any containment on Monday would be "tenuous" given the steep, rugged terrain in the narrow mountain canyons, the dry fuels, and swirling winds.

"It's entirely dependent on the weather," he said.

Hahnenberg said crews could see even more extreme fire behavior should winds drive flames to the northwest into stands of trees killed by beetles, but suppression efforts will focus on the more populous southern edge of the blaze.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper toured the burn area on Sunday and met with displaced residents.

Meanwhile, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez ordered an additional 100 National Guard troops to the area around Ruidoso to help protect property and assist in evacuations, bringing the total number of Guardsmen and firefighters in the vicinity to about 700.

Preliminary damage assessments put property losses at 35 structures, but officials said that number was likely to climb.

Ruidoso is located 191 miles south of Albuquerque in central New Mexico and has a year-round population of nearly 9,000 people. However, up to 75 percent of the homes are second homes, so the population grows considerably during the summer months, Parker said.

About 50 families were being housed in a high school gymnasium. Dozens of other families had found housing elsewhere or left town, Parker said.

The Little Bear Fire erupted on June 4 and was largely corralled within days, but high winds blew the blaze past containment lines and into a "rage," said Ruidoso information officer Kerry Gladden.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Christopher Wilson)

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