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Federal crews plan to contain wildfire in Colorado

Federal fire crews today expect to take control of the 7-square-mile wildfire blaze that may have claimed two lives and destroyed 28 homes in the mountains southwest of Denver.

By Dan ElliottAssociated Press / March 28, 2012

One home stands untouched at left while another home at right smolders after burning in the foothills community of Conifer, Colo., southwest of Denver on Tuesday, March 27, 2012.

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

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Conifer, Colo.

Federal fire crews are planning to take the offensive in containing a 7-square-mile blaze that may have claimed two lives and destroyed dozens of homes in the mountains southwest of Denver.

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Firefighters are hoping to start containing at least part of a mountain wildfire that forced hundreds of residents to flee, damaged 28 homes and may have caused the deaths of two people.

Investigators on Tuesday were trying to determine whether a controlled burn designed to minimize wildfire risk reignited and became a stubborn mountain wildfire.

Federal agencies dispatched two large air tankers to tackle the blaze that resulted in mandatory evacuations of 900 homes south of the commuter town of Conifer, about 8,200 feet up in the Rockies foothills and 25 miles southwest of downtown Denver.

IN PICTURES: Colorado wildfires

Some 450 firefighters from Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Utah were sent to assist 250 firefighters on the ground.

The fire consumed grass, brush and some Ponderosa Pine tree canopies. Winds were 20 mph to 30 mph before calming late Tuesday.

Denver's tightly populated southwestern suburbs were not threatened.

Jefferson County sheriff's spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said the wildfire may have sprung from a controlled burn. The Colorado State Forest Service did conduct a 35-acre burn in the region on Thursday — on land belonging to Denver's water authority — said forest service spokesman Ryan Lockwood. By destroying shrubs and woods in a controlled burn, there should be less material to fuel a wildfire.

Crews finished the effort on Friday and patrolled the 35-acre perimeter daily to ensure it was out, Lockwood said. It was during Monday's patrol that a state forest service crew spotted the wildfire — also on Denver Water property — alerted authorities, and began fighting it, Lockwood said. It wasn't clear if the wildfire was inside the controlled burn zone.

The Jefferson County sheriff's office will determine the cause of the blaze, while the Colorado State Forest Service was conducting its own review, Lockwood said.

Stacy Chesney, a spokeswoman for Denver Water, said the agency was "trying to be proactive" to protect water supplies from soil runoff caused by deforestation.

The area has several watersheds that feed metropolitan Denver and is several miles from the location of the 2002 Hayman fire, one of Colorado's worst, which destroyed 133 homes and 466 outbuildings over 215 square miles.

Protocols for controlled fires include monitoring them until they are determined to be cold — meaning nothing is at risk for reigniting, said Roberta D'Amico, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Fire officials normally check weather, terrain and other factors to create a burn plan and alert municipal authorities, D'Amico said.

Carole Walker, director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, said state agencies have limited immunity for performing regular duties.

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