LAPORTE – Firefighters on Sunday were fighting wildfires that have spread quickly in parched forests in New Mexico and Colorado, forcing hundreds of people from their homes and the evacuation of wolves from a sanctuary.
The northern 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 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 Complex 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 based on wind shifts.
Karen Takai, 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.”
Elsewhere Sunday, firefighters were battling a wildfire that blackened 6 square miles in Wyoming’s Guernsey State Park and forced the evacuation of between 500 and 1,000 campers and visitors. Cooler weather was helping firefighters in their battle against two other wildfires in southern Utah.
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 1½ miles an hour Saturday, skipping over some areas but burning intensely in trees in others. Flames were coming dangerously close to deputies who were telling some residents to evacuate, Smith said.
Kathie Walter and her husband helped friends several miles away evacuate from the Colorado fire on Saturday. When they got home, they were surprised to get a call warning them to be ready to evacuate just in case. But Walter didn’t want to wait.
“Smoke was coming in hard. We could not see flames or orange or black smoke. But we didn’t need to see anymore. We just said ‘Hey, let’s get out of here,’” she said.