Unusually windy, dry March fuels deadly Colorado wildfire

Tuesday , March 27, 2012 - 1:39 PM

Molly Hennessy-Fiske

DENVER -- Fire officials were hopeful Tuesday that calmer winds would help them bring a wildfire under control that has burned more than 3,000 acres in the mountains southwest of Denver, killing at least one person, destroying a handful of homes and forcing about 900 residents to evacuate.

It was not clear what sparked the fire Monday, although officials have said it may be related to a controlled burn. Conditions were prime for the blaze, following an unusually warm, dry March.

The fire was not contained early Tuesday, but officials said their "current fire-fighting strategy has changed from point protection to active fire suppression," according to the latest statement from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

Officials said grass, shrubs and Ponderosa pines were fueling the fire.

"The Ponderosa Pines will typically burn hot and continuous until they are nothing more than white ash," the statement said. "Heavy tree canopies combined with high temperatures and a lack of humidity are contributing to the volatile conditions as well."

Fire crews were on the way from Utah, Arizona and South Dakota to fight the blaze, which officials have dubbed the Lower North Fork Fire.

The identity of the individual who died in the fire had not been released early Tuesday, according to a spokesman for the Jefferson County coroner's office. The individual was likely a resident or visitor to the area, not an emergency responder, according to an earlier sheriff's statement.

About two dozen people stayed overnight at a shelter set up at a local high school.

More than 450 firefighters were expected to be working the fire by the end of the day, according to the sheriff's statement. Fire officials had also ordered a plane from Ogden, Utah, a heavy tanker and added helicopters.

Fire officials have been posting updates on a blog and Twitter, including some photos from the fire's front lines.

"Due to heavy fuels/high temps LowerNorthForkFire can travel rapidly and erratically," they wrote Tuesday morning, "Those near area should be prepped to evac."

The fire has destroyed 15 to 25 structures, but only a handful of them were homes, according to Steve Segin, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service based in Golden.

Segin told the Los Angeles Times that local fire officials had prepared for the risk of a large wildfire this week due to extremely dry, windy conditions.

Since the beginning of March, eastern Colorado has seen single-digit humidity, winds of 40 to 50 mph and a lack of snowfall, leading to red-flag warnings from the National Weather Service.

"The snow starts to melt and the vegetation hasn't greened up yet for spring, so there's lots of fuel" on the lower edge of the front range, he said. "We've had some very high winds this month that are atypical and one of the driest Marches on record. The conditions are right for very catastrophic large wildfires. This was anticipated.

"We had crews available, aircraft available, so the fire was able to get staffed very quickly," Segin said. "But when you have 40 to 50 mph winds, there's not much you can do. With winds like that, you're reacting to the fire."

He said that on Tuesday, better weather was expected to aid in fighting the fire, especially cooler temperatures, higher humidity and lower winds of 20 mph to 30 mph.

"It's not anything like yesterday," he said. "Depending on what the fire does today, there could be more evacuations. Right now things are pretty calm."

Segin said the Denver exurb has so far not posed many logistical problems for firefighters.

"There's some rugged terrain, but there's a lot of access to these homes so they're able to get structure protection," he said.

He said no firefighters have been injured fighting the blaze, but, "They're not out of the woods yet."

"There's a whole lot of fire out there with sustained winds and the challenge of all those acres," he said.

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(c)2012 the Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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