- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 13, 2012

LOVELAND, Colo. — Smoke from a massive wildfire in northern Colorado was blowing into southeast Wyoming and smudging the skies above Cheyenne on Wednesday.

Overnight winds from the southwest blew smoke into Wyoming, leaving a pungent odor in the air around the state’s capital city, which is 50 miles north of the fire. The smoke had drifted south to Denver on Tuesday but skies there were clear a day later.

The fire 15 miles west of Fort Collins has burned 73 square miles, destroyed more than 100 structures and forced hundreds of people from their homes.

The evacuees face extended displacement and uncertainty, though some may find out Wednesday whether their houses are still standing.

Evacuee Jan Gueswel still swears she’d never live anywhere else.

“I would rather live in Poudre Park than in an apartment where I don’t know what my neighbor is doing,” said Gueswel, who fled her home with her husband, Carl, as northern Colorado’s High Park Fire exploded.

She and others say they’d long ago accepted the year-round risks of fire in mountain country.

Many residents in the mountains of southern New Mexico faced heartbreak: A 56-square-mile fire threatening the village of Ruidoso damaged or destroyed at least 224 homes and other structures. Workers found heaps of burned metal and debris on home sites hit hardest by the Little Bear fire.

“It’s truly heartbreaking to see the damage done to this beautiful part of the country,” New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said.

The fires have underscored the need to replenish the nation’s aerial firefighting fleet. This week, the U.S. Forest Service announced it was increasing the national fleet to 17. And on Wednesday, President Barack Obama planned to sign a bill aimed at speeding the contracting of the next generation of air tankers.

A 62-year-old woman died in her cabin in Colorado’s High Park Fire, which was caused by lightning and has destroyed more than 100 structures. More than 600 firefighters labored to build containment lines as air tankers and helicopters focused on protecting buildings.

Gueswel expressed her gratitude.

“I don’t want anybody to die for my house,” she said. “I love my house, but I don’t want to die for it, and I don’t want anyone else to die for it.”

In Wyoming, where crews made gains on two wildfires, state forester Bill Crapser said firefighters throughout the West are coping with drought, stands of trees killed by bark beetles, more residents in forested areas and a decades-old buildup of fuel — the legacy of quickly stamping out fires, rather than letting them burn as nature intended.

Forest residents need to do their part by clearing their property of fuel, he said.

Story Continues →