- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

DENVER A massive wildfire fed by dry winds and brittle forests roared to within 30 miles of Denver yesterday and prompted authorities to order evacuations and alerts affecting 40,000 people.

The 2-day-old blaze, dubbed the Hayman fire, was expected to grow to 100,000 acres by last night, doubling its size in less than a day and becoming the largest fire in Colorado's recorded history.

Firefighters were pulled off the lines yesterday afternoon because the fast-moving inferno had grown too dangerous to fight from the ground.

"There's no possible way to get in front of this fire and make a stand. You just have to move over and get out of the way," Rowdy Muir, a spokesman for the firefighting joint command, told KUSA-TV, the Denver NBC affiliate.

The fire, which began in the Pike National Forest, about 55 miles from Denver, threatens the Front Range's prosperous southwestern suburbs, including bedroom communities such as Roxborough Village and Sedalia in Douglas County. There have not been any reported deaths or injuries.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens responded yesterday by announcing statewide bans on fireworks and open fires, sinking $10 million into firefighting efforts and securing promises of aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said he would tour the state's charred and burning forests today with FEMA officials.

Even so, Mr. Owens said that little could be done to contain the Hayman fire, the largest of the eight blazes in Colorado, until the state sees relief from the dry, windy weather.

"Colorado today is being tested by fire as it has never been tested before," Mr. Owens said. "There is nothing we can do under these weather conditions. It's a very dangerous time in Colorado."

More than 15,000 residents in the Denver area were placed on evacuation alert yesterday, bringing the number of people who could be or have been forced to flee their homes to 40,000. Firefighters have already evacuated the town of Deckers and other rural communities.

Colorado stands as the West's wildfire epicenter, thanks largely to what some experts have described as the worst drought in a century. A series of mild winters has drastically depleted the snowpack and reservoirs, leaving the state and national forests dry and vulnerable to flame.

Mr. Owens ordered tough restrictions on open fires and fireworks last week but expanded the ban to the entire state yesterday, after state fire officials found that the Hayman fire was caused by an illegal campfire.

At a news conference yesterday, Mr. Owens urged Coloradans to refrain from starting fires in forests.

"Every Coloradan owes it to himself and his fellow Coloradans to exercise extreme care whenever they are out of doors in this beautiful state," he said. "We're going to have enough problems dealing with natural fires this summer from lightning and coal seams."

Indeed, the state's second-largest fire, located west of Glenwood Springs, was sparked Sunday afternoon by a coal seam that had been burning underground for as long as 80 years. It is known as the Coal Seam fire, and the blaze grew by 1,000 acres, to 8,300 acres, yesterday, forcing 2,000 evacuations in the sparsely populated area.

The fire has unearthed painful memories for the Glenwood Springs community, site of one of the worst firefighting disasters in U.S. history. In 1994, 14 firefighters battling the Storm King fire died after parachuting into the thick of the inferno.

The Coal Seam fire has consumed 24 homes and 16 structures. The charred acreage left in the fire's wake looks "like a nuclear winter," Mr. Owens said after touring the region yesterday.

High winds have blown ash from the Hayman fire over Denver for two days, blanketing the city and its southwestern suburbs with a thin layer of soot and bathing the area in a yellowish-orange haze.

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