Windy Wild Fires Drive 1,000 From Colorado Homes

DENVER (CN) – More than 1,000 resident were forced from their comes in El Paso County, Colorado, Tuesday night as firefighters continued to battle deadly, windswept wildfires in several western states.

“I had one deputy report to me that he was going 35 mph eastbound on Handover Road and the flames were going faster than he was,” said El Paso Sheriff Bill Elder at a press conference Wednesday.

Flames from one wildfire, Fire 117, reached 50 feet in height as it quickly spread across 40,000 acres, Elder said.

“It was moving so quickly as we were trying to evacuate people, we were getting trapped,” he said.

The fire consumed 10 structures and a patrol car. Several firefighters treated for smoke inhalation. No human deaths were reported, although some livestock was lost.

Tuesday’s high winds even prevented aircraft from providing aid. On Wednesday, helicopters from Fort Carson, a nearby U.S. Army base, dropped about 10,000 gallons of water each on the flames.

The temporary shelter at the Fountain Valley Baptist Church, sponsored by the Colorado Springs Red Cross, sheltered seven displaced residents. As of 8 p.m. Wednesday evening, the fire was 25 percent contained and had engulfed 25 homes.

Fire 117 is named for the mile marker along Interstate-25 where it broke out southeast of the Colorado Springs Airport. The fire blew east toward nearby Pueblo and Lincoln counties, but remained ten miles away from the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant.

More than 200 firefighters joined the efforts to contain the inferno, including crews from nearby states North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.

Across Colorado, local firefighters responded to more than a dozen fires Tuesday, including small fires sparked by wind downed power lines in Lakewood, a fire in Castle Rock that consumed seven homes, and the 20-acre Barnet Fire that consumed five homes in Pueblo County.

“We used to have wild fire season from early spring into July or August, now we don’t consider it a season,” said Pueblo Fire Captain Woody Percival.

Following the Stateline Fire, which spread from New Mexico into parts of Colorado and Oklahoma in March, Fire 117 is the second event to qualify this year for the state’s Emergency Fire Fund.

“Just over the last couple of days, we’ve seen how quickly fires can spread,” said Caley Fisher, public information officer for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “With the way the weather has been, with high temperatures and low humidity, it looks like this is really just the beginning.”

With temperatures expected to increase 2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit over the next five decades, the Colorado Climate Change Plan anticipates an increase in drought and wildfire risk.

Stage II Fire restrictions prohibiting outside fires, firework sales, and outdoor smoking remain in effect for El Paso County. While a risk remains, residents have been allowed to return to their homes.

The fire’s origin has not been determined, but Elder has his suspicions, “I’m going to take a guess that it was something off of the interstate.”

“When you look at the dry conditions, the lack of moisture — snow and rain — that we’ve had so far, when you look at the probability that along this interstate we’re going to create an issue that starts a fire, this can continue all summer long,” Elder said, adding pessimistically that at least, “We’re running out things to burn.”

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