Colorado wildfire: 900 homes evacuated, and one fatality

A 3,000-acre wildfire near Conifer, Colo. has destroyed at least five homes, and may be the cause of one death. Help was coming from Arizona and air tankers will drop fire retardant on the wildfire Tuesday.

By , Associated Press

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    Fires top out trees as the blaze just about comes over the ridge near Reynolds Ranch Monday, March 26, 2012 in Conifer, Colo.A fast-moving wildfire destroyed at least five houses in the mountains west of Denver on Monday.
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 Investigators were trying to determine what killed a person whose body was found amid a Colorado wildfire that destroyed at least five homes in the mountains southwest of Denver.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department didn't immediately release the victim's name or any other details.

The body was found late Monday after the wind-driven wildfire spread across more than 4½ square miles in a matter of hours.

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The fire was initially only about five acres — roughly four football fields — when it was reported at midday Monday. The Denver Post reports that it covered 3,000 acres by Monday night.

"We have lost some homes now. ... Could be more than five, could be more than 10, could be more than 20; we just don't know,"  Jacki Kelley, a spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office told the Denver Post.

IN PICTURES: Colorado Wildfires

The wildfire may have been a prescribed burn from last week that sprang back to life on a windy day, Ms. Kelley said.

Prescribed burns are usually done to thin out vegetation to reduce the chances of a major wildfire.

Authorities ordered residents of more than 900 homes to evacuate. Deputies warned that the fire was still active late Monday and told residents not to try to go home to rescue pets but to call the sheriff's department.

The fire was about 25 miles southwest of Denver in a rugged, largely rural area where the altitude ranges from 7,000 to 8,200 feet. The region of pines and grassland is dotted with hamlets and the occasional expensive home. It is several miles — and mountain ridges — west of Denver's tightly populated southwestern suburbs, which weren't threatened.

About 100 firefighters were deployed to protect homes overnight. Officials were calling in help from as far away as Arizona and hoped to be able to have air tankers drop fire retardant on the flames Tuesday.

Shelters were set up at high schools in Conifer and in the southwest Denver suburb of Littleton.

Fewer than 100 people were at the shelter at Conifer High School late Monday. Many ate pizza and fried chicken and watched TV as volunteers wheeled in dog and cat food for pets that were put up in two classrooms. About 50 cots were set up in the gym, where kids played basketball to pass the time. Conifer was on spring break so classes weren't disrupted.

Kathy Wilkens, a 21-year Conifer resident, got a reverse-911 call at 8:30 p.m. She, her husband and two teen boys took shelter at the high school.

"Normally, we have a lot of snow this time of year. You'd just never think you'd have to evacuate for a fire in March," Wilkens said.

Rose Applegate said she received a call at 6:30 p.m. She had seen smoke in the afternoon and expected to be evacuated.

"I could tell we were in the path," Applegate said. "We gathered up a few things and came here."

She and her husband were staying the night. "We're going to stay close around here because we want to know what's going on," she said.

The fire sent up billows of smoke that dominated the sky over Denver. The National Weather Service said weather radar showed the smoke plume had drifted about 100 miles to the northeast by nightfall. State health officials warned smoke could linger and affect air quality until Tuesday afternoon.

Another fire burned up to 50 acres near Lookout Mountain west of Denver, where homes dot the forest along a steep, winding road with spectacular views. The sheriff's department said residents of two homes were asked to evacuate.

The fire was contained late Monday.

Up to a dozen smaller fires were reported from the northeast Colorado plains to the southern part of the state Monday. There were no immediate reports of injuries or structures destroyed in any of the other fires.

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Associated Press writer Rema Rahman contributed from Littleton, Colo.

IN PICTURES: Colorado Wildfires

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