CONIFER, Colo. (AP) — Firefighters were hoping to start containing at least part of a mountain wildfire Wednesday that forced hundreds of residents to flee, damaged 28 homes and may have caused the deaths of two people.
Strong gusts and erratic fire behavior forced crews to focus largely on protecting homes overnight instead of attacking the fire that broke out Monday, but more resources have been arriving.
The blaze is among the top in the nation for the priority to get firefighting resources, fire officials said late Tuesday.
Some 450 firefighters from Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Utah were sent to assist 250 firefighters on the ground. Weather permitting, four aircraft were scheduled to drop retardant Wednesday on the 7-square-mile blaze that resulted in mandatory evacuations of 900 homes south of the commuter town of Conifer, about 25 miles southwest of downtown Denver.
Residents of 6,500 more homes were warned Tuesday to be ready to leave because of the fire's behavior. Many homes are in winding canyons, and authorities wanted to give citizens as much advance warning as possible.
Meanwhile, investigators are trying to determine whether the fire reignited from a controlled burn that was meant to reduce vegetation that could fuel a devastating blaze around homes and watersheds.
The Colorado State Forest Service did conduct a 35-acre burn in the region on Thursday — on land belonging to Denver's water authority — said forest service spokesman Ryan Lockwood.
Crews finished the effort Friday and patrolled the 35-acre perimeter daily to ensure it was out, Lockwood said. It was during Monday's patrol that a state forest service crew spotted the wildfire — also on Denver Water property — alerted authorities, and began fighting it, Lockwood said. It wasn't clear if the wildfire was inside the controlled burn zone.
The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office will determine the cause of the blaze, while the Colorado State Forest Service was conducting its own review, Lockwood said.
Stacy Chesney, a spokeswoman for Denver Water, said the agency was "trying to be proactive" to protect water supplies from soil runoff caused by deforestation.
The area has several watersheds that feed metropolitan Denver and is several miles from the location of the 2002 Hayman Fire, one of Colorado's worst, which destroyed 133 homes and 466 outbuildings over 215 square miles.
Protocols for controlled fires include monitoring them until they are determined to be cold — meaning nothing is at risk for reigniting, said Roberta D'Amico, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Fire officials normally check weather, terrain and other factors to create a burn plan and alert municipal authorities, D'Amico said.
Carole Walker, director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, said state agencies have limited immunity for performing regular duties.
"They have immunity on the duties of managing a forest. It would have to be determined they were negligent or acting outside their duties" for property owners to seek compensation, Walker said.
Officials found the bodies of a couple at a destroyed home, said Daniel Hatlestad of the Jefferson County Incident Management Team. They were identified as Sam Lamar Lucas, 77, and Linda M. Lucas, 76. A cause of death was pending for both.
Another woman who lives in the fire zone was reported missing, authorities said.
On Tuesday, evacuees formed a long line to see a list of damaged properties posted by the Red Cross at Conifer High School. Residents groaned when Hatlestad told them it wasn't known when the fire would be contained.
"I understand that it's a difficult situation, but it's our house, and we're in the target zone," John Ryan, 47, said.
Hatlestad said the fire burned so hot that it melted farm and construction machinery, creating a silver stream of molten metal and softening the soles of deputies' shoes.
The fire threat in much of Colorado has grown during an unusually dry and warm March. On March 18, a grass fire charred 37 square miles in eastern Colorado and injured three firefighters.
As the fire near Conifer burned, Jefferson County officials implemented fire restrictions prohibiting any use of fireworks; fires unless they are built in permanently constructed fire grates in a developed park, campground or picnic area; and smoking, except within enclosed vehicles or buildings, a developed recreation site, or an area barren of combustible material within 3 feet.
Across the West, most states face normal wildfire danger, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. However, the potential for summer fires is significantly "above normal" for New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California, center meteorologist Ed Delgado said.
"It's just a changing weather pattern. We're exiting La Nina, and becoming more neutral in that pattern," he said. "Historically when we've entered this weather pattern, we've had situations that would be conducive to those areas having a higher fire threat."
La Nina is a cooling of the surface water in the Pacific Ocean that disrupts weather patterns.
The fire near Conifer has consumed grass, brush and some Ponderosa Pine tree canopies.
Associated Press writers Rema Rahman and Steven K. Paulson in Denver, Kristen Wyatt in Conifer, Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho, and Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.