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Early Fires Colorado*
Fire season rages early in Colorado
By Tom Kenworthy, USA TODAY
By Barry Gutierrez, AP
A slurry bomber drops a load of fire retardant on a wildfire along a ridge outside Bailey, Colo., on Tuesday.
BAILEY, Colo. Officials called in reinforcements Wednesday to fight a dangerous wildfire near Denver that forced the evacuation of 1,000 homes and stoked fears of an early and nasty fire season in parts of the West.
Federal fire agencies deployed air tankers and helicopters and summoned 200 firefighters from as far away as Illinois. That will nearly double the force now battling the fire near this foothills town about 35 miles southwest of Denver. Smoke prompted officials to close an 8-mile stretch of U.S. 285 between Shawnee and Pine Junction. The highway is the main artery through a rapidly growing area already scorched by two catastrophic wildfires in recent years.
Fed by gusty winds and extremely dry conditions, the fire forced the evacuation of Bailey, threatened a half-dozen subdivisions and consumed more than 2,000 acres. Firefighters fear that today's forecast of low humidity and 30 mph winds means a worsening blaze. The fire was only 10% contained late Wednesday. At one point, the humidity was just 3%.
Remarkably, no houses had burned as darkness fell. "Fires burned right around some homes," said Gary Shaffer, incident commander for the blaze.
"We've been saving a lot of them with the helicopters and tankers," he said.
The Bailey area was once a mountain retreat for city residents fleeing the summer heat. But thousands of new residents now commute to jobs in metropolitan Denver. The forests of surrounding Park County, one of the nation's fastest-growing counties, are sprinkled with hundreds of homes closer to nature and to fire danger.
A fire in 2000 burned about 11,000 acres and destroyed more than 50 homes near here. A blaze in 1996 along nearby Buffalo Creek charred 11,000 acres, then caused muddy floods that killed two people when summer storms pelted the denuded ground.
Across much of the West, federal fire authorities are preparing for another above-average year for wildfires. Winter snowpacks in many places in the Southwest and Colorado are as much as 80% below normal.
"Right now, the most critical areas are in the Southwest," said Heath Hockenberry, a fire weather specialist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. As spring progresses, however, parts of Utah and Colorado that already are "very close to record dry" will likely become more vulnerable, he said.
About 75,000 acres already have burned in New Mexico and Arizona this year, and Colorado has lost nearly 10,000 acres in more than 280 fires. The Colorado losses are more than three times what had burned by this time in the 2000 season, which was the worst in a half-century.
Federal officials predict a normal fire season for much of the rest of the West. One exception is Southern California, where moderate to severe drought is expected to produce an above-average number of wildfires.
"The fire professionals are telling me this is what you normally get in mid-August," Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said Wednesday as he visited the fire site, which is usually still covered with snow this time of year. "It's going to be a long, tough summer. Mother Nature has the last say. ... We have a big challenge. This fire is explosive. With the low humidity and the high winds, we're not getting any good news yet."
Owens released $450,000 in emergency funds to mobilize fire crews six weeks earlier than usual. He also asked the federal government to declare the entire state a drought emergency area, which could speed loans and other help to farmers. Also Wednesday, Colorado's Drought Task Force met for the first time in 20 years to address the state's worst dry spell in a century.
The fire began Tuesday behind a high school south of Bailey. Its cause is still unknown. The fire is burning on private and federal land, among brush, grass and stands of Ponderosa pine.
In January, the U.S. Forest Service announced plans to thin 5,000 acres of thickly wooded forest in the area, a critical watershed that supplies about 80% of Denver's drinking water.
But Owens admitted that such forest management measures are a long-term problem. "We're probably 15 years behind," the governor said. "Until we manage these forest lands better, we're going to be seeing more of this."
Contributing: Patrick O'Driscoll in Denver
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