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Monday July 6th, 2015 8:19PM

Hundreds evacuated as Colo., NM fires grow

By The Associated Press
LAPORTE, Colo. - Strong winds have grounded firefighting aircraft at a 40-square-mile wildfire in southern New Mexico.

Winds have been blowing up to 35 mph at the blaze near the mountain community of Ruidoso on Sunday. Crews were still working to build a fire line around the fire, which has damaged or destroyed 36 structures.

Crews also were fighting a 22-square-mile wildfire burning erratically in Colorado, about 15 miles west of Fort Collins. Eighteen structures have been burned.

The blazes have forced hundreds of people from their homes and the evacuation of wolves from a sanctuary.

The Colorado fire, burning in a mountainous area about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, grew to 22 square miles within about a day of being reported and has destroyed or damaged 18 structures. A fire near the mountain community of Ruidoso in southern New Mexico began Friday and was listed at 40 square miles Sunday due to better mapping. It has destroyed at least 20 structures.

It wasn't immediately clear how many of the structures lost were homes, as opposed to outbuildings.

In Colorado, the fire is sending up heavy smoke, obscuring the sun and creating an eerie, orange dusk in the middle of the day. Some ash fell as authorities issued a briefing on the fire. The smell of smoke drifted into the Denver area and smoke from the fires spread as far away as parts of central Nebraska, western Kansas and Texas.

The latest New Mexico fire is smaller than the Whitewater-Baldy 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.

Firefighters also were battling a wildfire that blackened 6 square miles in Wyoming's Guernsey State Park and forced the evacuation of campers and visitors.

Cooler weather was helping firefighters in their battle Sunday against two other wildfires in southern Utah.

In Colorado, authorities sent 1,600 evacuation notices to phone numbers but it wasn't immediately clear how many residents had to leave. About 500 people had checked in at Red Cross shelters.

Law officers went door to door to alert people in the evacuation area on Saturday, with flames licking at some of those units, Larimer County sheriff Justin Smith said. He 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 the county in about 25 years. It spread as fast as 1 1/2 miles an hour Saturday, skipping and jumping over some areas but burning intensely in trees in others. Flames were coming dangerously close to deputies who were telling some residents to evacuate, Sheriff Justin Smith said.

Because of the erratic way the fire has burned, unburned structures within the fire perimeter remain at risk.

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 see anymore. We just said `Hey, let's get out of here,'" she said.

They evacuated with their five cats and two dogs. They had a head start. After a wildfire in the area last year, they had left two suitcases packed in their garage.

Elaine Mantle and her family got a call to evacuate their Bellvue home at 5:45 a.m. Sunday. It took about 30 minutes for them to get out and reach a spillover shelter at the Budweiser Event Center in Loveland. Evacuees gathered there for a fire briefing, sipping coffee and eating bananas and powdered doughnuts, in a large gymnasium-like space.

It was the Mantles' first evacuation in the 25 years that they have lived in the mountains, and they were grateful to be safe.

"We're all here, we're all OK. Our neighbors are all here. We feel good," Mantle said.

She, her husband and adult daughter checked for fire information updates on their phones as they waited for the briefing to begin.

The evacuees included 11 wolves from a sanctuary near the fire. KUSA-TV in Denver reported that 19 wolves remained behind at the sanctuary, which has underground concrete bunkers known as "fire dens" that can be used by the animals.

The blaze is the latest to hit Colorado's drought-stricken Front Range. In May, a fire set by a camper's stove charred 12 square miles in the same Poudre Canyon area. In March, the Lower North Fork Fire 25 miles southwest of Denver killed three people and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes. That fire was triggered by a prescribed burn by the state forest service that grew out of control.

Eight air tankers - including two from Canada - and several helicopters were on the scene to help fight the blaze, which appeared to be burning on private and U.S. Forest Service land and was expected to be fueled by wind gusts of up 40 mph Sunday.

Wind has played a major role in the spread of both of the fires.

In New Mexico, the mix of timber, dry grass and the steepness of the slopes were making the firefighting efforts more difficult.

The fire was burning in steep, rocky, inaccessible terrain in the White Mountain Wilderness of the Lincoln National Forest, which is home to Smokey Bear, the little black cub that became the nation's symbol of fire prevention in the 1940s.

More than 300 firefighters were battling the blaze help from three large air tankers, three heavy helicopters and three Blackhawk helicopters. There were also 100 National Guard troops in Ruidoso to help as needed.
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