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New blaze ignites in CO

BY PJ HELLER | DENVER | June 15, 2002

"There's this eerie reddish-yellow glow outside because of all the smoke."

—Laura Lundin, New Hope Presbyterian Church

A new blaze in Colorado forced evacuation of more than 300 homes Monday morning. It had burned some 26,000 acres in and around the San Juan National Forest Monday morning. More than 400 additional residents were told to be ready to leave at a moment's notice.

The blaze was some 10 miles north of Durango.

Another fire in California, some 30 miles east of Bakersfield, burned five homes and 3,500 acres before firefighters got it under control.

Meanwhile firefighters made even more progress Monday against the 102,000-acre fire burning outside Denver.

A Forest Service employee was arrested for starting the blaze as shock and anger spread over the Denver community.

Some residents were allowed to briefly check on their homes but were taken back out because the danger was still too high. More than 5,000 people were still evacuated Monday morning. Residents still didn't know when they could return for good.

The blaze had burned 160 square miles and was 35 percent contained by Monday morning. It came within 40 miles of Denver.

Last week the fire sent a heavy cloud of smoke -- and a matching one of emotional strain -- over the city.

Firefighters battled to protect homes in Denver's southwestern suburbs. The blaze, the largest in the state's history, destroyed more than 20 homes.

Firefighters, who had been battling the blaze on the ground and from the air using air tankers and helicopters to drop water and fire retardant on the blaze, were pulled off the line when conditions became too dangerous.

Laura Lundin of the New Hope Presbyterian Church in Castle Rock said she, like other residents from Denver to Colordao Springs, could not even see the mountains to the west because of the heavy smoke.

"There's this eerie reddish-yellow glow outside because of all the smoke," she reported.

Lundin, who flew into the area last weekend after being on vacation in California, said that when she looked out the window of the airplane, she saw "huge plumes of smoke."

Once on the ground, "ash was falling everywhere," she said. "You couldn't have the windows open in your house."

The American Red Cross opened several shelters for residents and the Salvation Army set up at least five emergency meal stations throughout the state.

"They have opened up the (Castle Rock) middle school within a stone's throw from us as a shelter so right now there's no need for us to open up," Lundin said.

Lundin said her church was contacting members in affected areas to see if they needed help with transportation or if they had other needs.

"There has been nothing organized yet throughout the Castle Rock area between the churches because it (the fire) really took everybody by surprise that it moved that fast and that far," Lundin said. "It almost doubled in size overnight."

Gov. Bill Owens, who toured the burned sites Monday, described the fire scene as "a nuclear winter."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has approved nine firefighting grants this year in Colorado. Between 1994 and 2001, FEMA approved a total of eight grants for firefighting.

Already this year in Colorado a 4,400-acre blaze destroyed 83 residences -- a diverse mixture of modest single family homes, house trailers, cabins, and resort homes -- in the community of Deer Mountain, according to fire officials.

At least some residents said they won't rebuild in the same area because the fire danger is too high.

The blaze burned on or near the national forest area, said Colorado Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spokesperson Sherry Bell.

The blaze, called the Iron Mountain Fire, burned in an area 10 miles south of Canon City and about 100 miles southwest of Denver. It moved through parched brush and trees on a mixture of private and BLM land, Bell added.

Local churches were also responding by helping to get the word out about appropriate response, said the Rev. Chuck Kenyon at the First Baptist Church in Canon City. Emergency officials "are trying to discourage people from going up there," he said, since unaffiliated volunteers may inadvertently get in the way of emergency operations.

A better way to help would be to donate cash to a responding church or organization, local clergy recommended.

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