DENVER (Reuters) - Firefighters grappling with the two most destructive wildfires on record in Colorado reported progress on Monday, but were steeling themselves for a long season in what has already been a dangerously active fire year in the western United States.
The fires, which left a haze of smoke over the state’s urban corridors, have displaced tens of thousands of people and left vast swathes of forest a blackened wasteland in addition to charring more than 600 homes.
“I don’t think we’ve seen a fire season like this in the history of Colorado,” Governor John Hickenlooper said last week after surveying the destruction wrought by the Waldo Canyon Fire west of Colorado Springs.
The wind-driven Waldo, which is blamed for two deaths and the destruction of 346 homes, was now 70 percent contained, fire officials said.
“We’re getting our licks in,” incident commander Rich Harvey said of the fight to contain the 17,920-acreblaze burning mostly in the Pike National Forest.
The High Park Fire burning in steep terrain west of Fort Collins, is now 100 percent contained but will likely smolder until autumn snows return to the Rocky Mountains, fire managers said.
The lightning-sparked blaze has blackened 87,284 acres of private land and portions of the Roosevelt National Forest, consumed 259 homes, and is blamed for the death of a 62-year-old grandmother inside her mountain cabin.
Tinder-dry vegetation, a prolonged heat wave and high winds have fed the fires, said Bob Kurilla, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. “Hopefully the monsoon rains forecast for the next couple of weeks will help alleviate the situation,” he said.
President Barack Obama pledged more federal aid for firefighting and relief efforts after touring the Waldo Canyon fire zone on Friday
Nationwide, nearly 50 major wildfires are burning uncontained, mostly in 10 western states -- Colorado, Montana, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii.
Mike Ferris, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center, said at this stage there are adequate resources to combat the wildfires as fire managers move equipment and manpower from areas with little fire activity to states that need them.
“But if we continue to get new (fire) starts, then things can get a little more complex,” he said.
Ferris said it was too early to tell what effect the grounding of a C-130 air tanker fleet may have in the wake of the deadly crash of one of the Air Force tankers in South Dakota.
At the Waldo Canyon Fire, fewer than 3,000 residents who were forced to flee their homes remained under evacuation orders, city officials said, adding that crews were slowly restoring utility services to the affected areas.
When 65 mile-an-hour (100 km-per-hour) winds blew flames across several ridgelines and threatened populated neighborhoods last Tuesday, more than 30,000 people were ordered to flee the inferno.
Most of the remaining displaced residents live in the Mountain Shadows subdivision, a tightly clustered neighborhood of upscale homes in the bluffs on Colorado Spring’s western edge where the bulk of property losses occurred.
The remains of two people were found last week in a burned-out house in Mountain Shadows, bringing to six the number of people who have died in Colorado wildfires this year. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Lisa Shumaker