Colorado Wildfires Force Thousands to Evacuate

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado, June 10, 2002 (ENS) - Federal lands in five Colorado counties have been closed to all uses in response to wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents and visitors. The state has also banned all public use of fire on all federal lands throughout Colorado's borders.

The ban was prompted by several large fires that have scorched more than 60,000 acres across the state. Several of these blazes were started by carelessly lit campfires and other human activities that sparked the bone dry grass, brush and trees in drought stricken Colorado.

Hayman

Yellow smoke from the Hayman fire blanketed Denver over the weekend. (All images courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
"All of Colorado is burning today," said Colorado Governor Bill Owens on Sunday, speaking from the steps of the Glenwood Springs courthouse as trees burned in the background. Owens sought federal assistance this weekend to help fight the wildfires scouring the state, and to ban activities that could spark yet more fires.

"This is a potential tragedy of epic proportions, and the fire season isn't even upon us," Owens added.

One of the largest fires now burning in Colorado, dubbed the Hayman Fire, began when an illegal campfire escaped Forest Service efforts to contain it. The fire, which has burned more than 30,000 acres in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, has destroyed 20 commercial structures and is threatening 3,700 homes near Deckers.

Fires like this are the reason why many of Colorado's national forests are, for the first time ever, closed to public use, while the remainder will not allow fires or firework use.

Long Canyon

The Long Canyon fire has burned about 1,300 acres in Mesa County, Colorado.
"This is the first time that federal land managers in this area of Colorado have had to take such dramatic steps," said acting forest supervisor John Hill. "We understand the gravity of this closure and also believe that it mirrors the gravity of the fire danger we see around us."

Colorado Governor Bill Owens and the Department of Interior called for the restrictions last week, which ban the use of fires and fireworks on all federal lands in Colorado, and ban all public uses of federal lands in Douglas, Jefferson, Park, Teller and El Paso Counties.

"The severe drought conditions and the impact of wildfires on Colorado make this restriction on the public use of fire and of fireworks on federal lands appropriate and very necessary," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton. "We are committed to working closely with Governor Owens and other partners to do everything in our powers to protect lives, property and natural resources during this difficult wildfire season."

There are now four active large fires burning in Colorado that have burned about 63,000 acres. The largest, the Trinidad Complex, is burning almost 30,000 acres of pinyon pine, juniper and ponderosa pine south of Stonewall.

But the Hayman fire outside Lake George and the Coal Seam fire near Glenwood Springs are garnering far more attention by firefighters and the press. The Hayman fire required the evacuation of more than 1,000 people on Sunday, and left blackened ground around the edge of the Cheesman Reservoir, one of Denver's main water supplies.

smoke

A smoke column from the Iron Mountain fire, viewed from Penrose, Colorado.
After viewing the Hayman fire from an airplane, Governor Owens commented that the yellow smoke from the fire "looks like nuclear winter." Thick smoke from the fire has blanketed Denver, prompting health officials to urge residents to stay indoors.

The Coal Seam fire, sparked when high winds brought a fire smoldering in an underground coal seam to the surface, is now just four miles from the resort town of Glenwood Springs. The 7,500 acre blaze has already destroyed at least 23 homes and threatens 400 more.

The western and southern suburbs of Glenwood Springs have been completely evacuated, affecting more than 3,000 residents and visitors. Firefighters managed to successfully defend the city's water treatment plant and water storage tower - their loss could have doomed the efforts of the 250 firefighters now battling the blaze.

"We were very pleased because we were expecting the worst," said Representative Scott McInnis, a Colorado Republican, who visited the burned areas on Sunday.

satellite

This satellite image shows the smoke plumes from several large fires now burning in Colorado.
High winds and temperatures, and no rain in the foreseeable future, make for a dismal forecast for those fighting the Coal Seam fire. The underground coal seam that apparently ignited the fire has been burning for about 100 years - it was also responsible for the 1994 Storm King Mountain fire that killed 14 firefighters.

In the San Juan National Forest near Durango, a 6,500 acre fire destroyed a historic cabin and prompted the evacuation of nine homes. A 300 acre fire south of Glade Park has so far burned 300 acres and forced the evacuation of 200 residents.

Last week, the Iron Mountain fire near Westcliffe, Colorado destroyed more than 100 homes and 100 other buildings, scorching more than 4,400 acres.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved funds on Sunday to help Colorado fight the current fires - the ninth time this year that FEMA has approved such a grant. Between 1994 and 2001, FEMA issued a total of just eight emergency firefighting grants to Colorado.