Forest fire crews gain ground in Colorado, New Mexico
Author: Zelie Pollon and Keith Coffman
Trees are engulfed in flames in Colorado's High Park Fire, about 15 miles (24 km) northwest of Fort Collins June 11, 2012.
Photo: Rick Wilking
Fire crews on the attack against flames roaring through national forests in New Mexico and Colorado gained ground in both blazes on Tuesday, though thousands of evacuees remained unable to return to their homes, officials said.
The larger of the two blazes, now ranked as the third biggest on record in Colorado, claimed the life of a woman whose remains were found in the ashes of a cabin where she lived alone just outside Fort Collins, on the edge of the Roosevelt National Forest, authorities said on Monday.
Linda Steadman, 62, is the first casualty of the so-called High Park Fire, which has scorched more than 43,000 acres near the Wyoming border since it was ignited by lightning late Friday or early Saturday, and the fourth fatality in a Colorado wildfire this year.
More than 100 structures, including an undetermined number of homes, have been lost, and hundreds more dwellings remained threatened by the blaze and under evacuation orders.
But authorities on Monday reported their first measurable headway against the flames, saying ground crews had managed to cut containment lines around 5 percent of the fire's perimeter. They said residents from a couple of neighborhoods will be allowed back into their homes Tuesday afternoon.
Still federal incident commander Bill Hahnenberg said he anticipates firefighters will be battling the blaze for the next several weeks, if not into the fall. The plan for Tuesday, he said, was to focus on the southern edge of the fire with a heavy aerial assault.
"The south flank is problematic. There are lots of homes and lots of heavy fuels," he said. "We're concentrating our efforts there." About 500 firefighters were on the scene on Tuesday, but Hahnenberg said he expects that number to climb to as many as 800 in the days ahead.
Hundreds of miles to the south, firefighters also turned a corner against a wildfire burning in the rugged Lincoln National Forest in central New Mexico, where some 37,000 acres of mixed conifer have gone up in flames.
By Tuesday fire crews had extended containment lines around up to 30 percent of the perimeter of the Little Bear Fire, helped by calmer winds and higher humidity, officials said.
But nine residential areas with up to 2,500 people remained evacuated, and the resort village of Ruidoso, a town of some 9,000 year-round residents, was still under threat, said Ruidoso information officer Kerry Gladden.
"Our strategies for the day are to strengthen the containment lines, build new bulldozer lines on the side leading down to Ruidoso. We're hitting heavy this morning with air tankers," Gladden said.
Crews were on the ground assessing damage, and while 35 structures were already considered destroyed, that figure was expected to rise "significantly", Gladden said.
Governor Susana Martinez declared a state of emergency in Lincoln County on Tuesday, releasing additional state funds for fire relief.
Nearly 1,000 personnel have been assigned to the Little Bear Fire, including 400 National Guardsmen sent by the governor to help with evacuations and protect property.
The blaze was sparked on June 4 by lightning and was largely corralled within days, but high winds blew flames past containment lines last week, fanning a resurgence of the fire.
The blaze is burning in the same area where firefighters in 1944 rescued the orphaned bear cub later dubbed "Smokey Bear," the basis for a cartoon character who symbolized the U.S. Forest Service and was famed for the slogan, "Only you can prevent forest fires."
In southwestern New Mexico, the separate Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire, the largest in state history, was 37 percent contained after blackening 278,708 acres.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)