Colorado wildfire snuffs over 500 homes, new blazes menace West

DENVER/LOS ANGELES Tue Jun 18, 2013 7:48pm EDT

An aerial view of a destroyed house in the aftermath of the Black Forest Fire in Black Forest, Colorado June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

An aerial view of a destroyed house in the aftermath of the Black Forest Fire in Black Forest, Colorado June 13, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

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DENVER/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The number of homes destroyed by a Colorado wildfire rose above 500 on Tuesday as rain dampened the flames and allowed damage assessment teams to enter charred neighborhoods, as other threatening blazes grew in Alaska and elsewhere in the West.

Authorities said the so-called Black Forest Fire, which has killed at least two people and has burned in the rolling hills outside Colorado Springs for the past week, was 85 percent contained by Tuesday.

The most destructive fire in Colorado's history has charred 22 square miles (57 square km), destroyed 502 homes, and underscored concerns that prolonged drought conditions in the U.S. West could intensify this year's fire season.

Fire incident commander Rich Harvey of the U.S. Forest Service told reporters rain, which fell over the burn area, had allowed crews to carve containment lines around all but one section of the blaze.

"It is anticipated we will identify additional homes considered to be a total loss," El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said.

Investigators have pinpointed the area where they believe the fire started, but have not determined a cause, Maketa said, adding a U.S. Forest Service fire expert had arrived to take a fresh look at the site.

Some 2,600 people remain under evacuation orders, down from last week's peak of about 38,000 individuals.

As crews gained the upper hand over the Colorado blaze, other wildfires in California, Alaska and Arizona grew amid hot, dry conditions.

In California a fire believed to have spread from an unattended campfire on Sunday, threatened about 800 homes on Tuesday near Yosemite National Park, prompting evacuations, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

There was no immediate word on precisely how many people had been evacuated because of the 1,600-acre (647 hectare) Carstens Fire in Northern California, which erupted near a state route leading to Yosemite National Park, Cal Fire said on its website.

The fire was 15 percent contained on Tuesday afternoon, authorities said. A Cal Fire representative was not immediately available for comment.

In Alaska, meanwhile, record-high temperatures above 90 degrees in some areas contributed to the fast spreading of a spate of wildfires to 156 square miles overnight, up from 94 square miles on Monday.

Of particular concern was a blaze, caused by people near Chena Hot Springs resort in the Fairbanks area late on Monday, which had spread to 120 acres by Tuesday.

No structures have been lost, but officials imposed a temporary flight restriction on the area to reduce interference with firefighting aircraft, said Maggie Rogers, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Division of Forestry.

In Arizona, a wildfire burning through tinder-dry forest land about 100 miles north of Phoenix, is forcing the mandatory evacuation of residents there, officials said.

The Doce Fire has burnt at least 70 acres in the Granite Basin area, a few miles from the city of Prescott, said Noel Fletcher, a spokeswoman for the Prescott National Forest.

The exact number of homes under evacuation was not immediately clear, and a call to the local Yavapai County Sheriff's Office was not returned.

"Right now we are trying to get people out of the homes in the path of the fire," Fletcher said.

(Additional reporting by Yereth Rosen in Alaska and Tim Gaynor in Arizona; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis)

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