- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

DENVER Hundreds of firefighters yesterday placed themselves between Denver's southwestern suburbs and the wildfire still raging out of control after five days in an effort to stop the inferno from reaching the city.

The largest fire in state history slowed its advance yesterday, enabling about 450 firefighters to take to the ground for the first time in 24 hours. Authorities said they planned to dig barriers and light backfires to block the inferno's path into the southwest communities.

The winds shifted south and blew the swiftly moving fire back onto itself and away from the Denver suburbs. Now burning about 35 miles from Denver, the wildfire grew to about 90,000 acres, up from 77,000 acres Tuesday.

"There are still a lot of homes being threatened, but we're a little more optimistic that we may be able to hold this fire where it is," said Forest Service spokeswoman Kathy Hardy.

The good news for Denver was bad news for the Lake George community, at the fire's southern end. Fifty-one homes were destroyed as smoke enveloped the area, and about 1,430 residents were evacuated, bringing the total number forced to leave their homes to 5,430.

As many as 40,000 people remain on evacuation alert, ready to leave if the fire comes within a few miles of their homes.

Five days after it erupted near Hayman, Colo., the blaze was just 5 percent contained. About 3,100 structures are considered threatened by the fire, which could double in size and continue to burn all summer if the dry, windy weather prevails, authorities say.

"With the size of this fire it's about 20 miles long and 14 miles wide that's a lot of acres, and it takes a lot of time to put that line on the ground," Kim Martin, a firefighter at the southern command, told KUSA-TV, the NBC affiliate. "We could be here 70 days before we get a line around this fire."

The so-called Hayman fire has drawn comparisons to the 1998 wildfire that engulfed Yellowstone National Forest. Firefighters also were unable to contain that fire, and the blaze burned for six months until snowstorms extinguished it.

No rain is expected until tomorrow, and the winds continue to shift unpredictably, pushing the fire in all directions and blowing smoke and ash over the metro Denver area.

"The fire itself is not going to threaten Denver," Gov. Bill Owens said. But, he added, "the smoke sure is."

One local woman died Tuesday of what authorities said might have been an allergic reaction to the smoke.

William Allstetter of the city's National Jewish Medical and Research Center said patients suffering from asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis were complaining of more symptoms.

"We've also got a lot of phone calls," he said. "Many of the callers are feeling worse, a lot of them are worried."

State health officials have advised those with respiratory ailments to exercise indoors.

The Forest Service put the cost of fighting Colorado's eight fires, the Hayman fire being the largest, at about $20 million to date.

Mr. Owens and Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spent a second day touring fire sites. Mr. Allbaugh noted that plumes from the blaze, shooting as high as 20,000 feet, can be seen on satellite footage.

"The Hayman fire is the worst fire I've ever seen in my life," he said. "If astronauts are watching from the space shuttle, you've got to know it's huge."

County sheriffs' offices continued to search for the culprit in the Hayman fire, which was started by an illegal campfire. A ranger had written down the license plate number of a vehicle speeding from the site, but yesterday officials said the driver had been contacted and had no involvement in starting the fire.

Denver Mayor Wellington Webb has offered a $5,000 reward for any information leading to the discovery of the fire starter.

Four of Colorado's eight wildfires lead FEMA's list of its top-priority blazes. Another fire, the Coal Seam fire near Glenwood Springs, grew to 11,000 acres, while a 9,300-acre fire near Durango also continued to burn out of control.

The official fire season still has not begun in Colorado, which is facing its worst drought in decades, said Forest Service regional forester Rick Cables.

"We're way early," Mr. Cables said.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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