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Colorado wildfire forces nearly 2,000 evacuations amid drought

Smoke rises from behind the U.S. Highway 550

Smoke rises from behind the U.S. Highway 550 road block at Cometti Lane on Wednesday near Durango, Colo.

The Associated Press

DENVER — Fire officials cited the threat of dry thunderstorms, high heat and gusty winds Thursday in warning residents of hundreds of homes in southwestern Colorado to prepare to evacuate as more than 1,000 firefighters struggled to contain a wildfire that has blackened more than 50 square miles.

The fire 13 miles north of Durango is in the Four Corners region where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah meet — the epicenter of a large swath of exceptional drought, the worst category of drought, in the U.S. Southwest.

It hasn’t destroyed any homes since it began June 1, but it did force the closure of the San Juan National Forest this week. About 1,900 homes have been evacuated, and officials told residents of nearly 350 more to be prepared to leave Thursday.

Another day of hot, dry and windy weather delivered fresh challenges to firefighters elsewhere in Colorado and in southern Wyoming, where a 17-square-mile fire in the Medicine Bow National Forest forced the evacuation of nearly 400 homes in 10 small communities in the area. That blaze destroyed one home and two outbuildings since it was reported on Sunday.

New Mexico’s most populous county closed open-space areas on the east side of the Sandia Mountains because of high fire danger. The closures in Bernalillo County are the latest as national forests and state parks in New Mexico and elsewhere across the West have been put off-limits while the fire threat persists.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho reported there were 1,746 people responding to six active wildfires in the region. Total firefighting costs have surpassed $15 million, including $12 million on the Durango-area wildfire, according to the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in suburban Denver.

On Wednesday, a fast-moving brush fire destroyed eight homes in the southern Utah tourist town of Moab. Nobody was seriously injured, but five firefighters and several residents were treated for smoke inhalation or heat exhaustion.

More than 1,050 firefighters backed by air tankers and water-dropping helicopters attacked the Durango-area blaze Thursday, said Cameron Eck, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Incident firefighting team. The blaze was 15 percent contained.

Just west of the Continental Divide, Summit County officials said they’d been able to stop a 90-acre fire from reaching 1,300 homes in the Colorado town of Silverthorne, a popular jumping-off point for area ski resorts. That fire, reported Tuesday, was human-caused, and an investigation was ongoing, Summit Fire Chief Jeff Berino said. Officials urged evacuees to be patient as they worked hotspots before allowing residents to return.

Natalie Sullivan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder, said the parched region could get rain starting Saturday as remnants of Tropical Storm Bud arrive from the south.

Elsewhere in Colorado, firefighters contained a lightning-caused fire that charred 8,000 acres overnight near Kersey, KCNC-TV reported. Firefighters also contained a 150-acre brush fire Thursday along Interstate 70 near Watkins, about 20 miles east of Denver.

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