Record heat hampers efforts to fight wildfires

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MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Searing, record-setting heat in the interior West didn’t loosen its grip on firefighters struggling to contain blazes in Colorado, Utah and other Rocky Mountain states.

Colorado has endured nearly a week of 100-plus degree days and low humidity, sapping moisture from timber and grass and creating a devastating formula for volatile wildfires across the state and punishing conditions for firefighters.

“When it’s that hot, it just dries the fuels even more. That can make the fuels explosive,” said Steve Segin, a fire spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Much of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado is under a red-flag warning, meaning conditions are hot, dry and ripe for fires.

For the fourth straight day, Denver cleared 100 degrees and reached a record high temperature of 105 Monday. Other areas in the state also have been topping 100 degrees, including northern Colorado, where the state’s second-largest wildfire in history is burning.

And the scorching heat doesn’t appear to be letting up soon. Temperatures across Colorado are expected to clear 100 degrees again on Tuesday. Mr. Segin said such prolonged heat is “extremely taxing” physically on firefighters, who are working long days and carrying heavy gear.

The wildfires also are posing a threat to tourism.

Several large wildfires across the West have placed some tourist destinations from Montana to New Mexico in danger just at the height of midsummer family road-trip season, putting cherished Western landscapes at risk along with hordes of vacationers.

In Colorado, the $5 billion tourism industry is on edge as images of smoke-choked Pikes Peak and flaming vacation cabins near Rocky Mountain National Park threaten to scare away summer tourists. Flames from the wildfire burning near Colorado Springs could be seen from downtown early Tuesday, the Gazette reported.

In central Utah, a wildfire in an area dotted with vacation cabins was burning an estimated 58 square miles and threatening about 300 homes. Firefighters had that blaze at 10 percent containment Monday. The Sanpete County sheriff’s office said as many as 30 structures may have been lost.

And in New Mexico, firefighters Monday were mopping up a small wildfire that threatened one of that state’s top tourist attractions, El Santuario de Chimayo, a 19th-century church north of Santa Fe. The church draws some 300,000 visitors a year and appeared to be out of danger Monday.

With the nation’s privately owned fleet of heavy air tankers already in use or unavailable, U.S. Forest Chief Tom Tidwell said his agency had to call on C-130 military tankers to help. The order came as new fires started in Colorado, Utah, Alaska and Arkansas. In all, more than 1.3 million acres across the U.S. have been charred this year.

Chief Tidwell told the Associated Press in a phone interview Monday that about half of the nation’s personnel who are usually assigned to large fires are working in Colorado right now.

“It’s just because it’s so dry,” Chief Tidwell said. “Not unlike New Mexico — they saw very low snowpack, especially in that lower country. Hot, dry winds with dry fuels, you get the ignition, and this is what we see.”

Even as some evacuated residents in Colorado were allowed to return home, tourists streamed out of some of Colorado’s most popular summer sights.

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