Wildfire Nearly Contained, Colorado Town Evacuation Lifted

March 20, 2012

Evacuated residents of the small Colorado town of Eckley have been allowed to return home after firefighters contained most of a wildfire on the state’s northeastern plains.

Three firefighters were injured battling Sunday’s blaze, and two of them remained hospitalized late at night, fire spokeswoman Deanna Herbert said.

The town’s 300 residents were given the all-clear to return home about 9:15 p.m., Herbert said. But the order remained in effect for and undetermined number of farms around the town, near the border with Kansas and Nebraska about 150 miles northeast of Denver.

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

The wind-fueled grass fire destroyed at least two homes and threatened several others before it was reported 90 percent contained late Sunday night, after scorching parts of an 84-square-mile area.

Fire crews were still fighting hot spots and flare-ups, Herbert said.

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

“The smoke is just thick and rising way up into the air,” Mike McCaleb, emergency manager in Washington County, said earlier Sunday. 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.

Yuma County Sheriff Chad Day took an aerial survey of the damage Monday. He told KUSA-TV in Denver 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.

The smoke and dust was so bad after the fire broke out that some firefighters couldn’t see the fire, Day said.

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.

East of Colorado Springs, an 80-acre fire east of Colorado Springs damaged three buildings on Sunday, but no injuries were reported, according to KKTV-TV. Fire officials did not return a phone call seeking information.

The fires follow a week of warm, dry weather that raised the fire danger across eastern Colorado. Smaller fires were sparked along the Front Range, one by a ditch burn that got out of control and another by fireworks.

Denver broke a weather record by hitting 76 degrees on Saturday.

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