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Colorado, New Mexico Emergency Officials Seek More Help Fighting Wildfires

June 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Since it was started early Saturday by a lightning strike, the High Park wildfire has consumed more than 60 square miles in Colorado -- damaging or destroying more than 100 homes. Meanwhile, crews in southern New Mexico battled a 54-square-mile fire near the town of Ruidoso. Gwen Ifill reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Fire managers in Colorado and New Mexico spent the day calling in major new manpower and hoping for help from nature. The developments underscored that fire season has set in with a vengeance in the Southwest.

Thick clouds of smoke drifted across the Northern Colorado sky, as flames consumed more and more of the forest below. The High Park fire is believed to have been sparked early Saturday by a lightning strike 15 miles west of Fort Collins. Since then, the big blaze has covered more than 60 square miles, with nothing to slow it down.

NICK CHRISTENSEN, Larimer County, Colo., Sheriff’s Office: We’re still at zero percent containment, so, obviously very significant growth over the night. It’s a very aggressive fire. It’s fuel-driven, wind-driven, and so the conditions have not been favorable. It’s grown in a number of different ways.

GWEN IFILL: The fire has damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes and other buildings so far. One person is missing.

Seventy-eight-year-old Velma Hudson and her husband, Jim, were among hundreds of people forced to flee Saturday. They left their Poudre Park home with only the clothes on their backs.

VELMA HUDSON, Colorado: Everything is still there. We walked out with nothing. I grabbed my purse. He forgot his glasses, which we have to get. And that’s it. We’re here. We’re alive. And we know we’re OK. The roar of that fire and movement of the wind was atrocious, just — just — I have never seen or never heard it and we have lived in Colorado most of our life.

GWEN IFILL: The Larimer County Fairgrounds in Loveland provided shelter for humans, as well as horses and livestock rescued from the fire. For those who left their homes, there was only anguished waiting.

WOMAN: Shell-shocked. I was telling my friend, I feel like there is no solid ground underneath me right now.

MAN: Very worried. I don’t know if we have got a place to go to or not. It’s right in the middle of it.

WOMAN: We’re all literally just watching, praying that it’s not our house that we see go up in smoke.

GWEN IFILL: Meanwhile, crews in southern New Mexico battled a 54-square-mile fire near the town of Ruidoso. Helicopters carried huge buckets of water to douse the flames, as crews battled for advantage on the ground.

In some places, it was already too late.

WOMAN: We have a lot of faith. My faith is so deep that I know that, whatever happens, it’s not that it’s God’s fault.

GWEN IFILL: On Sunday night, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez deployed scores of additional National Guard troops to help with evacuations.

At the same time, an even larger wildfire continued burning in southwest New Mexico. The Whitewater Baldy blaze has charred 450 square miles since mid-May, mostly in remote areas. The other fires are closer to populated areas.

In Colorado, 400 firefighters are already deployed against the High Park fire, with 200 more due in the next 24 hours. Fire team leaders warned today, they have got a long, hard job ahead.

BILL HAHNENBERG, incident commander: Even though that fuel looks green, normally wouldn’t burn this time of year, it’s burning very well. And that’s why we’re getting this aggressive and active fire behavior that we are. Then you mix the winds and the low humidity that we had yesterday, for example, we’re going to have a lot of fire growth in this situation, in this terrain.

GWEN IFILL: Add to that this year’s chronic drought, and officials say the prescription is perfect for the Southwest’s worst fire season in many years.