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June 13th, 2012

Hot Weather Sparks Deadly Wildfires


Hundreds of miles of forest are on fire in the American West, due to dry weather, the mild winter that left little snow and some clumsy camping. Hundreds of firefighters are battling a Colorado wildfire — one of 19 large fires burning in nine states. In New Mexico, more than 1,500 fire fighters are battling the largest blazes in state history.


Officials say winds, low humidity and this year’s chronic drought is the perfect recipe for the worst fire season in many years.

The fire in northern Colorado started with a camp stove. U.S. Forest Service investigators say 56-year-old James Weber, a mental health counselor at Colorado State University, tried to stamp out the fire Monday but then fled as the blaze spread. There is no cell phone service in the area where the fire started, and Weber could not contact fire officials right away

The Forest Service issued Weber a citation for causing a fire without a permit. He faces a $300 fine, and perhaps more depending on how much damage is caused.
Weber “is most concerned about what’s going on now,” his lawyer said, adding that he is focused on the well-being of the firefighters, residents and wildlife in the area.

States and Canada send reinforcements to fight the fires 

President Barack Obama called Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to assure him that the federal government stood ready to provide personnel, equipment and emergency grants for Colorado and other states battling fire.

Forest firefighters use heavy equipment and water hoses to control forest fires. Some elite forest firefighters, known as smoke jumpers, parachute from airplanes to reach otherwise inaccessible areas.

More than 600 firefighters and nearly 30 aircraft are continuing to fight northern Colorado wildfires blamed for one death and damage to more than 100 structures. The U.S. Forest Service says about 40 fire engines will also be helping contain the fire.

Wyoming diverted personnel and aircraft from two fires there to help with a 60-square-mile Colorado wildfire. Canada also loaned two aerial bombers. And an elite federal firefighting crew is on the scene.

In New Mexico, firefighters made slow progress against the largest wildfire in state history. The blaze has charred 435 square miles of forest since it was sparked by lightning in mid-May.  It was 37 percent contained Monday.

Lowest snow-pack in a decade and dry weather blamed

Snowpacks form from layers of snow that accumulate in regions and high altitudes where the climate includes cold weather for extended periods during the year. Snowpacks are an important water resource that feed streams and rivers as they melt.

Officials expect this will be a tough summer for firefighters and residents in vulnerable areas.

“There’s zero snowpack left,” explained federal snow-survey coordinator Mage Skordahl.

The amount of snow left on the mountains is at the lowest level in a decade and rivers in Colorado are running around 25 percent of average, she said.

Dry weather and high winds also increase the risks of rapidly spreading fires.

Igniting the West

As of Wednesday, June 13 the Associated Press listed the following fires burning across nine Western states.

  1. California: A wildfire that briefly threatened homes in Kern County was fully contained.
  2. Colorado: The 68-square-mile High Park Fire is 10 percent contained. More than 600 people are assigned to the fire.
  3. New Mexico: Nearly 1,000 firefighters and more than 200 National Guardsmen are battling the 56-square-mile Little Bear fire. Containment is 35 percent. More than 500 firefighters bolstered lines around the Gila fire, the country’s largest at 438 square miles.
  4. Utah: Two wildfires blackened 4,000 acres in Fishlake National Forest in southern Utah. A third fire believed to have been sparked by target shooting near Centerville, 15 miles north of Salt Lake City, was quickly contained late Monday.
  5. Wyoming: A 4-square-mile blaze at Guernsey State Park is 80 percent contained. Six helicopters and 600 firefighters are deployed. Firefighters contained 95 percent of a 13-square-mile fire in Medicine Bow National Forest and completely contained a 1,700-acre fire in Weston County.
  6. Arizona: A wildfire has charred nearly 2,700 acres but is now 40 percent contained; it began Sunday in the Tonto National Forest northwest of Phoenix. In northern Arizona on the Navajo Nation, a wildfire has burned about 600 acres.

— Compiled by Imani M. Cheers for NewsHour Extra

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