Jerry McBride/Durango Herald
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald
LOVELAND – Firefighters faced dangerous conditions across much of the Rocky Mountains Monday, as they toiled in hot, dry weather to battle a wildfire that has charred nearly 92 square miles in northern Colorado.
Authorities said they determined eight more homes have burned in the fire west of Fort Collins. The blaze started June 9 and now has destroyed at least 189 homes – the most in the state’s history. The fire is 50 percent contained.
The wind was relatively calm Monday, despite forecasts of gusts of up to 50 mph, fire information officer Brett Haberstick said. Temperatures, however, were in the mid-90s, and the relative humidity was extremely low at 3 to 5 percent, he said.
Other wildfires were burning in warm, arid weather from Wyoming to northwestern New Mexico to Southern California, where a blaze that prompted the evacuation of at least 150 homes was 30 percent contained Monday.
Monday evening, deputies with the San Juan County, N.M., Sheriff’s Office were helping residents evacuate the immediate area. Monday evening, authorities could not say how many residents were affected.
In the Durango area, some people were unsettled Monday by a visible plume of smoke in the sky. A change in wind direction had brought the smoke from the Little Sand Fire, which has been burning 13 miles northwest of Pagosa Springs since a lightning strike sparked it May 13.
Firefighters will continue to struggle with the weather conditions according to the National Weather Service. All of Southwest Colorado, including the Durango and Pagosa Springs areas, will be under a red-flag warning from noon to 9 p.m. today. The warning, which reflects increased fire danger, is issued in response to gusting winds, relatively low humidity and dry fuels. The relative humidity today is forecasted to be between 5 and 10 percent, with winds gusting up to 35 mph.
It will still be hot, with a predicted high of 89 degrees in Durango Wednesday and 90 degrees on Thursday and Friday, but the winds should be much lighter starting Wednesday, said John Kyle, a data acquisition program manager with the weather service’s Grand Junction office.
The Little Sand Fire has burned 13,180 acres, up from 10,000 acres on Friday, and has held at a 30 percent containment level for several days. The fire has cost almost $4 million to fight to date.
“We’ve been trying to prepare people to understand they’re going to see smoke for a while,” said Fire Information Officer Suzanne Flory. “It’s going to be like that tomorrow and until we get substantial rainfall.”
A National Incident Management Organization team, only one of four in the country, has now taken command of the fire. The Forest Service has 175 personnel on the scene, with five helicopters providing aerial support, according to a news release issued Monday.
There is still no rain in the forecast.
“A pseudo-monsoon may be beginning to develop,” Kyle said, “but that’s well out into next week, and we’ve had fronts look promising a week out, five days out, then maybe get only a trace of moisture, if that.”
A meeting to update the public about the fire and firefighting efforts will be held at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Sportsman’s Campground Recreation Hall on Piedra Road.
Elsewhere in Colorado, another fire started Sunday in the foothills west of Colorado Springs and has prompted evacuations of cabins, a Boy Scout camp and a recreation area near the Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir, which provides water to the Denver area.
That fire has burned about 1½ square miles, and fire managers said it has the potential to grow much more in the dry conditions. Authorities hadn’t listed a containment figure by Monday.
As firefighters try to get the upper hand on the blaze near Fort Collins, which has burned large swaths of private and U.S. Forest Service land, local authorities have dispatched roving patrols to combat looting.
On Sunday, deputies arrested Michael Stillman Maher, 30, of Denver, on charges including theft and impersonating a firefighter. The sheriff’s department said Maher was driving through the fire zone with phony firefighter credentials and a stolen government license plate.
His truck was later seen near a bar in Laporte, and investigators said they found a gun and stolen property in the vehicle.
Jeff Corum, whose home burned on the first day of the northern Colorado fire, described whirling, unpredictable winds that drove the blaze.
“That’s what it’s been doing, back and forth,” Corum said. “It’s just like a washing machine, and it’s just rolling up there, and that’s the way the mountains are.”
Corum grabbed some clothing and two weapons when he fled, but not his credit cards. He’s spent a few nights in a motel, some at a Red Cross evacuation center and some in his truck.
The fire also is forcing wildlife to flee the flames. A moose seeking shelter in Fort Collins is back in the wild after swimming across Horsetooth Reservoir, the Fort Collins Coloradoan reported.
Wildlife officials tranquilized the moose, blindfolded it and moved it to an area away from the fire. City officials say they’re expecting more wild animals than usual because of the fire.
On Monday, Rocky Mountain National Park enacted a ban on all campfires because of the threat of wildfires in Colorado. The park normally allows campfires in designated fire rings, but the ban will prohibit those, as well as charcoal grilling, for the first time since September 2010.
Herald Staff Writer Ann Butler contributed to this report.