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Western Fires Continue to Spread as Hundreds More Evacuate

June 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The High Park wildfire in Colorado continues to spread, now covering more than 68 square miles. To the south in New Mexico, fire crews are battling huge blazes there as well. Correspondent Tom Bearden reports from Fort Collins, Colo.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Fire crews in Colorado and in New Mexico reported more progress today in their efforts to contain blazes out West, but hundreds have been driven from their homes. 

“NewsHour” correspondent TOM BEARDEN has our update from Fort Collins, Colorado. 

TOM BEARDEN: Overnight, the fire that’s been burning through northern Colorado since Saturday spread again. It now covers 68 square miles, more than 43,000 acres. 

In some areas this morning, trees were lost in a shroud of thick smoke over the mountainous terrain near Fort Collins. But the U.S. Forest Service added more tanker planes to help fight the flames after the state’s congressional delegation demanded more aid. And fire managers said they had begun to see progress toward containment. 

BILL HAHNENBERG, Incident Commander: As the sun set, we were looking — we thought we were around 5 percent. My hope for today, estimate would be we should be around 10 percent, weather-dependent, and all those conditions changing that will affect that. And sometimes we make almost no progress because of conditions. And other days we make a lot of progress. 

TOM BEARDEN: The fire has destroyed 100 homes and other buildings. It’s also claimed at least one life, 62-year-old Linda Steadman. Her family released a statement saying she died in the cabin she loved. For those who have fled the fire, there is a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety. 

NICOLE FLANNERY, Colorado: It’s definitely terrifying to not know whether we’re going to have a house one minute or if we’re going to end up being homeless the next day. And we really worry about all of our neighbors that lost their homes. It almost doesn’t seem fair that we haven’t been up there that long and our house got saved, and people who have lived their whole life and some that built their own houses, their houses got destroyed. 

TOM BEARDEN: The fire began with a lightning strike. 

And REID ARMSTRONG with the U.S. Forest Service said once it got started, heavy winds took over. 

REID ARMSTRONG, U.S. Forest Service: Conditions have been very dry. And what was the major factor was wind. We had winds with gusts over 40 miles an hour over the weekend. And that’s what really caused this fire to spread so fast. 

TOM BEARDEN: Similar conditions contributed to a 56-square-mile fire near Ruidoso, New Mexico, where about 36 buildings have burned. That blaze was about 30 percent contained today. 

But an even bigger wildfire in southwestern New Mexico has been burning since mid-May in a less populated region. It’s now the largest fire in the state’s history. In a bid to help, the state forestry unit in neighboring Arizona dispatched two water tenders and 15 fire trucks to New Mexico today. All told, at least 18 large wildfires are now burning in nine Western states, with hundreds of firefighters deployed against them.