LAPORTE, Colo. – Firefighters on Sunday were fighting wildfires that have spread quickly in parched forests in Colorado and New Mexico, forcing hundreds of people from their homes and the evacuation of wolves from a sanctuary.
The Colorado fire, burning in a mountainous area about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, grew to more than 31 square miles within about a day of being reported and has destroyed or damaged 18 structures.
Strong winds, meanwhile, grounded aircraft fighting a 40-square-mile wildfire near the mountain community of Ruidoso in southern New Mexico. Crews were working to build a fire line around the blaze, which started Friday and has damaged or destroyed 36 structures.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the structures lost were homes. “We’re still trying to take a tally,” Kerry Gladden, public information officer for Ruidoso, said late Sunday afternoon.
In Colorado, the fire sent up heavy smoke, obscuring the sun and creating an eerie, orange dusk in the middle of the day. The smell of smoke drifted into the Denver area, and smoke spread as far away as central Nebraska, western Kansas and Texas.
The latest New Mexico fire is smaller than the Whitewater-Baldy fire – the largest in the state’s history – but it’s more concerning to authorities because it started closer to homes, said Dan Ware, a spokesman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. He said the number of Ruidoso evacuees was in the hundreds, but he didn’t have an exact figure.
Gladden said preliminary evacuations could be issued for some areas closer to town due to wind shifts.
Karen Takai, a spokeswoman for the Ruidoso fire crews, said smoke is heavily impacting the community of Capitan, about 5 miles to the northeast. She said Capitan and others could also face evacuation.
“Any communities around this fire have the potential of being evacuated,” she said. “If I lived in Capitan, I definitely would be prepared. Don’t wait until the sheriff’s office comes knocking at your door and tells you to evacuate.”
In Colorado, authorities sent nearly 1,800 evacuation notices to phone numbers, but it wasn’t clear how many residents had to leave. About 500 people had checked in at Red Cross shelters. Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said there was an unconfirmed report of a person unaccounted for, but he wouldn’t elaborate.
Authorities say it’s the worst fire seen in Larimer County in about 25 years. It spread as fast as 1 1/2 miles an hour Saturday, skipping over some areas but burning intensely in others. Flames were coming dangerously close to deputies who were telling some residents to evacuate, Smith said.
The blaze also forced the evacuation of 11 wolves from a sanctuary near the fire. KUSA-TV in Denver reported that 19 wolves remained behind at the sanctuary, which has underground concrete bunkers known as “fire dens” that can be used by the animals.
Eight air tankers – including two from Canada – and several helicopters were on the scene to help fight the blaze.
Authorities say they’re competing for resources that have been diluted by several wildfires burning across the West.
“Resources are thin right now,” said Nick Christensen of the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office. “We are trying to get more of everything at this point.”
In New Mexico, the mix of timber, dry grass and the steepness of the slopes were making the firefighting efforts more difficult.
The fire was burning in steep, rocky, inaccessible terrain in the White Mountain Wilderness of the Lincoln National Forest, which is home to Smokey Bear, who became the nation’s symbol of fire prevention in the 1940s.
More than 300 firefighters were battling the blaze with help from three large air tankers, three heavy helicopters and three Blackhawk helicopters.