Owens Surveys Wildfire, Grants $3 Million In Emergency Funds

Governor To Announce Fire Ban On All State Lands

More than 300 firefighters from five states are on the scene of a wildfire that's burned nearly 12,000 acres in southern Colorado.

Gov. Bill Owens arrived in Fort Garland just after 8 a.m. to get a firsthand look at damage, and sign an executive order providing $3 million in state funds to fight the blaze.

He is also expected to announce a ban on open burning and fireworks on all state lands.

"It's going to be a tough season. We've already lost more acreage already this year than we lost in all over last summer. We're expecting a loss in half of our wheat crop, half of our alfalfa crop. We're seeing fires start to break out and it's going to be a tough year for all of us," Owens told 7NEWS just before getting on a plane at Centennial Airport to fly to Costilla County.

The Mato Vega fire was first reported on Sunday, and has already cost about $350,000 to fight. Containment is estimated at 30 percent.

It is burning in an area with a lot of fuel, with fallen trees, logging debris, dry grass and drought-stressed pines in the area.

High temperatures, winds, and low humidity complicated efforts to get that blaze under control.

Forecasters provided some good news for crews battling the wildfire, predicting lighter winds and cooler temperatures with even better weather expected later.

About 300 homes in three rural subdivisions were under mandatory evacuation orders and residents of other subdivision were advised to leave, but not ordered to.

A wind shift Tuesday night allowed crews to back-burn a buffer zone near a subdivision, protecting homes if the blaze reverses direction, fire information officer Steve Segin said. Flames came to within two miles of the subdivision earlier Tuesday.

"It's right there, it's a step away," Segin said. "There's a lot of fire out there."

U.S. 160 remained closed for the third day Wednesday.

The fire is advancing to the north and east. Smoke is visible in Pueblo, at least an hour from Fort Garland.

The Pueblo County Health Department has issued a health warning and urge residents to keep windows closed and avoid outdoor exercise.

Fire Grows By Leaps, Bounds Then Slows

"I've never seen a fire that size," Myers Archoata said as he sat in his pickup along the highway. "I've lived here all my life. We've had fires, but we've been able to put them out."

The fire's advance north into Huerfano County appeared to stall in a grove of aspen trees on a ridge about a mile away from a subdivision of about 30 homes.

"We're cautiously optimistic," said another fire information officer, Karl Brauneis. The fire seemed to lack the fierceness of a day earlier when 40 mph winds pushed flames up to 200-feet high across a swath seven miles long and two miles wide.

Aspen trees usually contain more moisture and burn less easily than dry pine trees, Brauneis said.

"It was burning through that aspen at night (Monday), but by morning when it hit that ridge, it didn't have the oomph to get down and over the ridge and into that (grove) of aspen," he said.

The flames eventually did burn through the Aspens overnight Tuesday, but the progress was slowed considerably.

Calmer winds Tuesday also kept the wildfire from spreading, and most acres were scorched Monday and early Tuesday, Brauneis said. Crews planned to take an aerial survey of the fire around noon Wednesday to better determine the size.

Other Fires

In Teller County about 60 miles south of Denver, a 44-acre fire burning through ponderosa pines and grass was about 25 percent contained Wednesday. Better mapping prompted fire managers to reduce the estimated size from 50 acres earlier.

The fire forced the evacuation of three homes. No houses had burned, but crews were trying to keep the flames from topping a ridge and threatening a nearby subdivision, fire information officer Naomi Marcus said. A fire line dug into the dry ridge Tuesday held up through the night, she said.

Four single-engine tankers, one helicopter and about 90 firefighters were on scene.

In western Colorado, a car wreck started a wildfire that quickly grew to at least 1,500-acres and was threatening some cabins and ranches in Montrose County, prompting warnings but no mandatory evacuations, fire information officer Murray Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker said five homes and dozens of outbuildings -- sheds, detached garages, outhouses -- were threatened.

The fire in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, about 225 miles southwest of Denver near the Utah border, had crept to within a half-mile of the small town of Paradox, according to Shoemaker. The town wasn't ordered evacuated because of a lack of vegetation around the town, he said.

The fire started about 11:30 a.m. Tuesday when a Ford Bronco driven by Linda L. Johnson, 36, of Naturita veered off a dirt road, rolled and caught fire, the Colorado State Patrol said.

Johnson suffered neck and back injuries and was cited for careless driving and leaving the scene of an accident without reporting it, a state patrol report said. It was not immediately known if she sought medical attention.

Fire managers requested more than 250 firefighters from as far away as Salt Lake City and California, including a dozen smoke jumpers, along with air tankers or helicopters and fire engines.

In southwestern Colorado, the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch center issued an advisory that heavy smoke rolling across southern Colorado was coming from wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico.

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