Drought, wind spark early fire season in Colorado

A series of fierce wildfires in Colorado, now increasingly under control, portend what could be one of the worst fire seasons in the West since the "inferno years" of the 1990s.

A prolonged drought, coupled with more people moving into woodland areas, is forcing authorities from California to Colorado to brace for a potentially explosive summer.

"If the rest of the summer plays out as we expect it to, this fire season will match the big years ... of the late 1990s," says Don Smurthwaite of the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.

In Denver, residents are relieved that a 77,000-acre fire – the largest in state history – appears to have changed course after a shift in wind direction. That may allow some 6,000 residents in two counties southwest of Denver to return to their homes.

They were evacuated after the so-called Hayman fire – the nation's No. 1 firefighting priority at the moment – came perilously close to homes hugging the foothills of Colorado's Front Range.

Nonetheless, mass evacuation remained a possibility, depending on the vagaries of the wind, and ash and smoke continued to shroud suburban areas.

Denver itself smelled like a campfire. Residents accustomed to pine-fresh mountain air took to wearing face masks, and some motorists turned on their high beams during the day as a yellow haze engulfed the city.

"This fire is totally dominated by Mother Nature, all wind-driven, and because of the drought conditions it's that much more unpredictable," says US Forest Service spokeswoman Susan Haywood.

The Hayman blaze, started by an illegal campfire, is just one of at least eight fires in Colorado, including a 10,000-acre conflagration that destroyed 24 homes and sent residents fleeing in Glenwood Springs, in western Colorado. The state has appropriated $10 million to combat the fires. The Forest Service on Monday closed the Pike National Forest for the first time in at least 25 years.

Yet authorities are preparing for far more fire alarms this summer. So far, some 1.3 million acres have burned in the US in 2002 – almost double the average for this time of year. Two years ago, the General Accounting Office estimated that nearly 40 million acres of Western lands were at high risk of "catastrophic" fire because of the dry conditions and growing populations in wooded areas.

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