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Firefighters battle CO wildfire

More than 3,500 forced from homes in face of devastating wildfire

BY JOHN PAPE | BOULDER, CO | September 8, 2010

"There will be many struggles ahead as we begin to assess property damage and losses. My thoughts and prayers go out to all residents harmed by this devastating fire."

—CO Gov. Bill Ritter

More than 3,500 people remained evacuated Wednesday as the massive 7,100-acre Fourmile Canyon wildfire continued to spread through the mountains just west of Boulder, Colorado.

Preliminary estimates indicated more than 100 structures had been destroyed within the first 24 hours of the fire, including 53 homes. At least nine of those homes belonged to firefighters working to contain the blaze.

The evacuation area included 70 subdivisions. A shelter for evacuees was opened at the YMCA in Boulder.

About a dozen evacuees spent Tuesday night at the Coors Events Center on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus prior to the opening of the YCMA shelter. Authorities said other emergency shelter locations were closed because most evacuees made arrangements to stay with friends or family.

Food, water and insurance claims assistance for evacuees were being provided by the American Red Cross.

A number of churches, including several from as far away as Denver, were prepared to help, but have not yet been needed.

No additional evacuations were being considered.

A Boulder-based nonprofit, Volunteer Connection, was assembling teams of individuals interested in helping evacuees, but has not yet activated any of the teams.

“Specific volunteer needs are still being assessed at this time, but a list of potential volunteers and their contact information is being compiled,” the agency said.

During a Wednesday morning press briefing, Boulder County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Rick Brough said fire crews were still assessing their attack on the advancing and it was “still too soon” to talk about containing the wildfire.

“I’m not even going into containment at this time,” Brough said.

Brough also said air tankers remained grounded Wednesday morning due to a temperature inversion over the fire area.

“The weather inversion is holding smoke close to the ground. For that reason, tankers are not able to fly,” he said.

As soon as skies clear, the tankers will begin to drop fire retardant, Brought said.

Even with the air tankers grounded, fire teams were on the ground conducting “point protection” of structures, clearing potential fire fuel from around those buildings.

“We have teams in the area right now, including investigative teams trying to determine the cause and origin of the fire. We also have teams up in the area that are documenting structures that have been damaged and destroyed,” Brough said. “One of the issues is we have structures that have been damaged all around the fire area that has already burned. It’s not like we’re going to just one area; we have to move around the complete area.”

Brough he realized the evacuees were “anxious and frustrated” because of how slow information was being released, but the size of the area involved was impeding teams’ progress. Additionally, communications are spotty due to the terrain and some of the information cannot be reported until teams return to the staging area later in the day.

As of midday Wednesday, there had been no reports of injuries to firefighters or residents; however, eight people who apparently did not heed the evacuation order were missing.

Authorities theorize the fire may have started when an automobile ran into a propane tank, causing the tank to rupture and spark the blaze. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle stressed, however, that was only a working theory.

“That’s the best information I have right now. That’s part of what the investigative team is doing today, trying to lock down that information and confirm it.”

Incident Commander Don Whittemore said despite the losses, firefighters had saved “hundreds of homes.” He also said the most active part of the fire is on the east side.

Two communities, Boulder Heights and Pinebrook Hills, lie in the path of the advancing blaze, but no structures in either of those communities have been lost.

Fire crews managed to save the historic town of Gold Hill, including an Old West grocery store and structures once used for stagecoach stops.

More than 500 firefighters are either on the fire line or enroute to help. In addition to those from Colorado, firefighters from New Mexico and Wyoming were being sent to battle the blaze.

Boulder City Manager Jane Brautigam ordered the closure of Boulder Reservoir to the public on Tuesday so the area could be used to shelter firefighters. Brautigam said reservoir location was chosen because of its proximity to the incident command post at the Boulder County Regional Fire Training Center.

“We know the Boulder Reservoir is a popular destination this time of year, but this closure is necessary to help the courageous firefighting crews who are working this very difficult situation,” Brautigam said. “As a city, our hearts go out to our neighbors who have lost their homes, and we are pleased to be able to provide whatever support we can to the emergency personnel on the front lines."

On Tuesday, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter declared a state of emergency and earmarked $5 million to fight the Fourmile Canyon fire. Ritter, who spent much of Tuesday and Wednesday surveying the fire by air, called the blaze “extremely volatile and dangerous” and urged evacuees to remain patient.

“It's very important for homeowners who have been evacuated to be patient as firefighters work to get the blaze under control. On behalf of the people of Colorado, I want to commend the emergency crews, including those who have lost their own homes, for doing all they can on the fire lines to protect life and property,” Ritter said. “While it is encouraging that the evacuations have been successful and there have been no serious physical injuries, there will be many struggles ahead as we begin to assess property damage and losses. My thoughts and prayers go out to all residents harmed by this devastating fire.”

State Forester Jeff Jahnke called the Fourmile fire “a harsh reminder about the importance of being prepared for wildland fire, particularly for those who live, work and recreate in the wildland-urban interface.”

Effects from smoke generated by the fire were being felt as far away as Denver. Colorado public health officials urged residents to stay indoors with their windows closed because of the poor air quality.

Dry, gusty winds that helped initially spread the fire calmed only slightly on Wednesday. The blaze was still being driven by 10-20 mph winds.

A public meeting to update Boulder residents on the Fourmile Canyon fire was called for Wednesday evening at the Coors Event Center.

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