Wind drives fast wildfire west of Denver

KRISTEN WYATT
Associated Press
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CONIFER, Colo. (AP) — State forest officials had conducted a prescribed burn last week in the same area where a wind-driven wildfire has destroyed at least 15 homes and left one person dead, authorities said Tuesday.

Ryan Lockwood, a spokesman for the Colorado State Forest Service, said his agency conducted the prescribed burn on Thursday on land belonging to the Denver Water Board as part of an ongoing attempt to reduce fire danger. Such burns are usually done to thin out vegetation to reduce the chances of a major wildfire.

"This has been going on for the past year," said Lockwood, who referred questions about the decision to other agency officials.

Jefferson County sheriff's spokeswoman Jacki Kelley had said earlier that the wildfire, which spread to nearly 5 square miles within a matter of hours on Monday, may have been a prescribed burn from last week that sprang back to life because of strong wind gusts.

The fire is burning several miles and mountain ridges west of Denver's tightly populated southwestern suburbs, which are not under threat. The area of pines and grassland is mountainous and sparsely populated, dotted with hamlets and the occasional expensive home. It is about 25 miles southwest of Denver at an altitude that ranges from 7,000 to 8,200 feet.

About 900 homes have been evacuated and more remained under threat. It has destroyed 15 to 25 houses, authorities said.

A body was found late Monday but investigators have yet to determine the cause of death. The victim wasn't a firefighter or emergency responder, Kelley said.

Strong wind fanned the blaze and prevented air crews from spraying retardant on Monday. Forecasters said gusts were expected to be lighter on Tuesday, though a period of stronger winds was expected in the afternoon.

"The wind will really tell the story today," Kelley said.

Video from KUSA-TV's helicopter showed one home burned to its foundation with a flicker burning in the rubble. Another home appeared untouched, a car parked in the driveway, although land across the road was charred.

Evacuees took shelter at nearby Conifer High School, where cots were set up in the gymnasium and two classrooms became makeshift kennels for dogs and cats. Outside the school, winding mountain roads were crowded with horse trailers as owners moved livestock to a fairgrounds.

County officials updated nervous residents early Tuesday, asking anxious homeowners to leave behind their addresses so they could be called with the status of their homes. They were told they wouldn't be allowed to return home yet.

"We will not be able to allow any citizens back into that area (until) at least the end of the day — and that's not a promise," said Daniel Hatlestad, spokesman for the Jefferson County Incident Management Team.

He said rescuers brought out an unknown number of people who were trying to flee by car but were forced to pull over because of low visibility. Hatlestad said winds neared 90 mph Monday evening, so even cars couldn't outrace the smoke.

"We were pushing people and dogs and cats into fire trucks," he said.

Temperatures lately have been reaching into the 70s during an especially dry March, raising the fire danger around Colorado. Up to a dozen smaller fires were reported from the northeast Colorado plains to the southern part of the state.

"Normally, we have a lot of snow this time of year. You'd just never think you'd have to evacuate for a fire in March," said Kathy Wilkens, a 21-year-old resident who fled her home with her husband after a reverse 911 call on Monday night.

Evacuees munched on pizza and fried chicken, with volunteers leading children in games of basketball in the school gym. Rose Applegate said she saw smoke on Monday afternoon and expected to be evacuated.

"I could tell we were in the path," Applegate said. "We gathered up a few things and came here."

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Associated Press writer Rema Rahman contributed from Littleton, Colo., and Steven K. Paulson contributed from Denver.