Colo. fire forces town's 300 residents to evacuate

Associated Press

WRAY, Colo. (AP) — A large, wind-fueled grass fire on the plains of northeastern Colorado destroyed at least two homes, threatened multiple others and forced all 300 residents of a rural town to evacuate Sunday.

More than a dozen area fire departments were battling the blaze, which started at about 1:15 p.m. south of Yuma and quickly spread toward Eckley, prompting evacuation orders for the town.

The fire was about 50 percent contained late Sunday, said Mike McCaleb, emergency manager in Washington County. But firefighters faced a long night, with winds of 30 to 35 mph expected to decrease to a "still significant" 20 mph, he said.

Evacuation orders for Eckley were expected to remain in place overnight. Residents of an unknown number of farms in the surrounding area also were told to leave, McCaleb said, and shelters were set up in the nearby towns of Wray and Yuma.

The fire sent up a huge wall of smoke in the afternoon, forcing authorities to close a section of U.S. Highway 34 east of Yuma.

"The smoke is just thick and rising way up into the air," McCaleb said. With high winds also kicking up dirt, "visibility was nothing."

The conditions made it difficult for authorities to assess the damage. They confirmed two homes were destroyed and multiple other residences and buildings were threatened. But fire spokeswoman Deanna Herbert said Sunday night that the total number of structures burned "will not be known until full containment is accomplished."

McCaleb said the fire was burning in grass, along with corn stalks and what stubble from crops harvested last year. Its cause was unknown.

"We've been very dry throughout the winter," McCaleb said.

Meanwhile, three firefighters suffered minor injuries battling the blaze.

Yuma County Sheriff Chad Day told KUSA-TV in Denver (http://on9news.tv/FPoIXr ) that one firefighter suffered minor burns to the face and was being treated at a nearby hospital. A second firefighter was being treated for smoke inhalation, while a third suffered minor burns to the arms.

"These are the only injuries we know of right now, and we hope it stays that way," Day said. "The wind has just been really volatile in terms of changing quickly on us."

Chris Foltz, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Goodland, Kan., said the fire was fueled by sustained winds of 30 to 35 mph, and a gust of 62 mph was measured near Yuma at about 4:35 p.m. He said the small town of Kirk just south of the fire experienced a wind gust of 68 mph soon after the blaze started.

"The winds are going to stay up," he said. "Probably late, late tonight they're going to settle down."

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