JIM LEHRER: Thousands of people are evacuating communities southwest of Denver today, fleeing a massive, fast-moving wildfire. Tom Bearden reports.
TOM BEARDEN: The smoke plume towers tens of thousands of feet above the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Evidence of the inferno below that has rapidly destroyed nearly 80,000 acres of timber in the Pike National Forest. It is completely out of control moving so rapidly that firefighters are being kept out of its path and are working only on the perimeter.
Tony Diffenbaugh is an information officer with the Forest Service.
TONY DIFFENBAUGH, U.S. Forest Service: As we flank the fire, the goal is to take the lines around both flanks and actually pinch off the fire.
TOM BEARDEN: Two air tankers were to join the battle today after being hampered by high winds yesterday. But there was another setback when a World War II vintage bomber was forced to return to the ramp with engine trouble. Firefighters from all over the country are gathering near the origin of the fire, about 50 miles southwest of Denver. About 400 have arrived so far.
As the firefighters were arriving, local residents were leaving. Hundreds of people in this rural area have been ordered to evacuate. Carol Keith is angry because an illegal campfire is the suspected cause of this fire.
CAROLE KEITH: I feel like people come up from not the mountains and they figure it's not their home and they just light a cigarette or light a campfire and say, hey this doesn't affect us and they don't live here. You know, you put your life and heart and soul into something like this in trying to build a house. All of a sudden it just might be all gone.
TOM BEARDEN: Closer to Metropolitan Denver much denser subdivisions were blanketed in smoke so thick that the governor likened it to a nuclear winter. About 30 miles southwest of the city residents of the Roxborough Park area, like Dennis Kennedy and his family, were packing up and moving out this morning.
DENNIS KENNEDY, Roxborough Park Resident: The order came over the TV but a request for people to evacuate voluntarily they said there would be an evacuation order later but they want people to start leaving now so there's not a big rush to leave.
TOM BEARDEN: Kennedy had already decided to leave even though he doesn't think his home will be destroyed.
DENNIS KENNEDY: I went through the house, used a video camera, did an inventory for insurance purposes and then we started taking things out of various rooms that we felt were important to each of us.
TOM BEARDEN: It must be awful to have to do that.
DENNIS KENNEDY: It's not fun.
TOM BEARDEN: Are you nervous?
DENNIS KENNEDY: Well, I'm nervous about the fire. It's coming this way. But there's going to be 400 people fighting it today plus there will be some slurry bombers and some helicopters and we know that they're going to pay a lot of attention to this area right behind us and try to save these houses up here. There are 741 houses in Roxborough. Down in the village there's another 1400. That's just two miles down the hill.
TOM BEARDEN: Residents have been alerted to a possible evacuation last night, but the danger abated somewhat when the winds shifted but they shifted back again this morning, sending the flame front toward the development.
KEN PRIBBENO: This is more academic than for real. At least I got the hose out here and I'm ready to go when the real action starts.
TOM BEARDEN: Next door to the Kennedys, Ken Pribbeno was wetting down the shrubbery. Some homeowners with flammable roofs were emulating his technique. He planned to stay unless the fire literally forced him out.
KEN PRIBBENO: It's just that the wind was blowing real hard it might throw embers down on us so I plan to be the ember patrol down here and just put out the little things that show up.
TOM BEARDEN: But Pribbeno's neighbor, Steve Harris and his wife and three children, were leaving. How do you decide what to take and what to leave behind?
STEVE HARRIS, Roxborough Park Resident: If we can buy it at a store we don't need to take it. Some of the pictures that we have that we've had for a long time and all the photographs and really just those important things. That's about all that's important to us.
TOM BEARDEN: In all, about 7,000 people have left their homes in the Denver area. That number could swell to 40,000 in the days ahead.