Residents begin returning home as Colorado fires smolder

Saturday, June 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DRAKE, Colo. – Firefighters blessed by cooler weather made headway Friday against two wildfires smoldering in the mountains west of Denver, and residents began returning home.

After three days of hot, windy weather with temperatures in the high 80s, temperatures fell at least 30 degrees, and clouds blanketed the foothills, boosting humidity.

Nearly 1,500 firefighters worked to stamp out the flames, and air tankers and helicopters dropped fire retardant and water.

Cooler weather was expected through Sunday, giving crews hope they could contain the fires that have raged since Monday.

"The fire is really laying down, the humidity is up and there is less wind," firefighter Adam Stepanich said.

Fire information officer Bob Sturdivant added: "I think the worst is over. Humidity is up. The fire behavior won't be as erratic as it has been."

At least 39 homes and an estimated 10,950 acres of wooded foothills have burned 35 miles southwest of Denver. Authorities said that blaze was about 25 percent contained Friday.

Ninety miles away, nearly 8,100 acres and 15 homes had burned just east of Rocky Mountain National Park. That fire was 40 percent contained.

At least 800 people were evacuated from both areas.

Southwest of Denver, residents living in temporary shelters cheered when authorities said some could go home.

"We're ecstatic. We'll get our life back to normal," said Cameron Wright, 29, hugging his wife, Lori, as she fought back tears.

Near the national park, evacuees were being allowed to collect belongings but not stay in their homes.

The blazes are the largest in what is shaping up as the nation's worst fire season since 1996. The National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho reported that more than 45,000 fires this season have burned 1.2 million acres – 1 million of them in the South and Southwest.

The Colorado fires grew by thousands of acres Thursday as winds gusted to 60 mph and temperatures reached the 80s.

About 1,500 firefighters were on hand, along with at least 200 Colorado National Guard soldiers.

They had prepared for an all-out blitz Friday, hoping advances in containment lines combined with more favorable weather conditions would speed progress against the flames.

While the fire near the national park has affected primarily ranching and farming communities dotted with homes, the fire near Pine Junction has burned an area of mountain subdivisions and national forest. Many residents hoped to get a look at their homes Friday, including Pete Grunwald.

He fled his subdivision Monday but managed to get in Tuesday night to see that both of his neighbors' houses had been destroyed. His home, however, was still standing.

"It's like divine intervention; nothing was burned at my house," he said, not knowing what to expect when he returns again.

Elsewhere, firefighters in California feared hot, dry conditions across the state would create tinderbox conditions, yet crews were able to largely contain a Napa County blaze that has consumed more than 5,700 acres.

The fire has destroyed eight buildings, two of which were vacation homes on Lake Berryessa. Six firefighters suffered minor injuries.