CO firefighters make headway

BY SUSAN KIM | BAILEY, CO | April 26, 2002

"We're just a tinderbox."

—Polly White

More than 400 people remained out of their homes Friday but cooler weather helped firefighters make progress battling a wildfire near Bailey, Colo.

Hundreds of firefighters were still trying to gain control over the 2,500-acre blaze, which was about 35 percent contained late Friday.

Thick smoke in the area -- some 35 miles southwest of Denver -- dropped visibility to less than a quarter mile.

The fire spread so rapidly earlier this week it forced the entire town of Bailey to temporarily evacuate. Emergency responders were also forced to abandon their incident command center and relocate.

Some 1,000 homes were evacuated Wednesday. But Wednesday night some residents were allowed back to their homes overnight. Schools remained closed. Many people back in their homes remained without electricity and water Thursday, according to reports from the sheriff's office.

The Parkview subdivision was still under threat and an evacuation order remained in effect for Parkview residents. The fire was reported to be burning among some homes but emergency management officials were as yet unable to verify structural loss. They did verify that flames came within 20 feet of homes.

Flames crept within a quarter-mile of downtown Bailey.

An American Red Cross shelter was forced to move from Elk Creek Elementary School to Conifer High School to allow more space for evacuees. A second Red Cross shelter was set up at Camp Santa Maria.

Highway 285 was closed but then reopened between Pine Junction and Shawnee. Responders were urging people not to drive near the fire area since emergency vehicles need access to the roads.

The blaze started late Tuesday morning and within 24 hours had more than doubled in size. Winds of 35 mph had been fueling the fire as it consumed grass, brush, and ponderosa pine.

Bailey, 35 miles southwest of Denver, is home to some 4,400 people. It used to be a mountain retreat for city residents fleeing the summer heat. But thousands of new residents now commute to jobs in Denver. Homes are dotted in the forests of Park County.

Firefighters described erratic winds, intense heat, and smoke so thick that in some places it is difficult to see the flames.

"We're just a tinderbox," said Polly White, public information officer for Colorado emergency management. Gov. Bill Owens requested and received assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

White added that insurance companies are already setting up in a designated area in case residents need their services.

The blaze is burning in an area a few miles north of a site where a wildfire in 2000 destroyed 51 homes. Federal fire agencies deployed air tankers and helicopters and called in 200 firefighters from as far as Illinois. An earlier blaze in 1996 along nearby Buffalo Creek charred 11,000 acres, then caused floods that killed two people when summer storms pelted the denuded ground.

The Bailey blaze marks the beginning of an early and potentially disastrous fire season for the west.

About 75,000 acres already have burned in New Mexico and Arizona this year, and Colorado has lost nearly 10,000 acres in some 280 fires. Colorado's losses are more than three times what had burned by this time in the 2000 season, which was the worst in a half-century.

Conditions similar to the ones around Bailey are normally seen in mid-August. The site where the Bailey blaze is burning is usually still covered with snow this time of year.

Colorado continues to have a moderate drought, verging on severe in the southwest corner of the state. All mountain areas have below average snow pack. The statewide reservoir storage is at 88% of average but most municipal reservoirs remain in good shape, reported state officials.

The fire spread so quickly that FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh personally phoned Gov. Owens Tuesday night to offer FEMA's assistance in fighting the fire.

Gov. Owens has also asked the federal government to declare the entire state a drought emergency area, which could speed loans and other help to farmers. Colorado's Drought Task Force met Wednesday for the first time in 20 years to address the state's worst dry spell in a century.

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