BELLVUE, Colo. - Massive wildfires in drought-parched Colorado and New Mexico tested the resources of state and federal crews Monday and underscored the need to replenish an aging US aerial firefighting fleet needed to combat a year-round fire season.
Wyoming diverted personnel and aircraft from two fires there to help with a 60-square-mile wildfire in northern Colorado. Canada also loaned two aerial bombers to fight the blaze after the recent crash of a US tanker in Utah. And an elite federal firefighting crew arrived to try to begin containing a fire that destroyed at least 118 structures.
All told, about 600 firefighters will be battling the fire some 15 miles west of Fort Collins by Tuesday, said incident commander Bill Hahnenberg. “We are a very high priority nationally. We can get all the resources we want and need,’’ he said.
But Colorado’s congressional delegation demanded that the US Forest Service deploy more resources to the fire, which was zero percent contained and forced hundreds of people to abandon their homes. One person was missing.
In a letter to the Forest Service, Colorado lawmakers said the need for firefighting aircraft was dire. Senator Mark Udall urged President Obama to sign legislation that would allow the Forest Service to contract at least seven large air tankers to add to its fleet of 13 - which includes the two on loan from Canada.
One of the region’s most potent aerial firefighting forces - two Wyoming Air National Guard C-130s fitted to drop slurry - sat on a runway in Cheyenne, 50 miles north of the Colorado fire, because the Forest Service, by law, cannot call for military resources until it deems that its commercial fleet is fully busy.
In New Mexico, firefighters got new air and ground support to battle a fast-moving wildfire that charred tens of thousands of acres and forced hundreds of residents to leave their homes in the southern part of the state.
Smoke filled the air in the mountain community of Ruidoso as evacuees gathered at a high school gymnasium to get an update on the lightning-sparked fire in the Sierra Blanca mountain range. The blaze exploded over the weekend and reached more than 54 square miles by Monday.
An estimated 35 structures have been damaged or destroyed by the blaze, and fire managers expect that number to grow once damage assessments are done.
Elsewhere in New Mexico, firefighters made slow progress against the largest wildfire in state history. The blaze has charred 435 square miles of forest since it was sparked by lightning in mid-May, and was 37 percent contained Monday.