Weather helps crews battle Colo. wildfires that killed 3

April 16, 2008 6:08:10 PM PDT
Stunned residents surveyed the smoldering ruins of their homes Wednesday after a fast-moving wildfire swept through parts of this farm town on Colorado's eastern plains, killing two volunteer firefighters, scorching grassland and forcing hundreds of people to flee. That 14-square-mile fire was fully contained Wednesday. But another 15-square-mile blaze raged nearly out of control on a remote part of the Army's Fort Carson after killing a firefighting pilot. And in the mountains of western Colorado, a third fire burned about 1 1/2 square miles, damaged two buildings and slightly injured a fisherman.

Leading into Ordway, utility poles were destroyed, power lines and electrical transformers dangled precariously and grain storage facilities were blackened.

"How can I describe it? It's really heartbreaking," said Arthur Montanez Jr., 50, who lost his house and two dogs Tuesday. "We worked our butts off to get this place. We spent our last six years to make this our home. And just in a short time for it to be like this, it's shocking."

All 1,200 residents of Ordway, about 120 miles southeast of Denver, were ordered to leave as the fire bore down on the town, pushed by 50-mph winds. The cause was unknown.

Eight homes were destroyed, state Sen. Ken Kester said. In all, the fire damaged at least 24 buildings, fire information officer Katherine Sanguinetti said.

By Wednesday, dying winds and rising humidity helped firefighters gain ground. Forecasters said rain and snow could fall by Wednesday night.

Volunteer firefighters John Schwartz, 38, and Terry Devore, 30, died when their fire truck plunged into a ravine under a bridge that had been damaged by flames. It wasn't immediately clear whether the bridge collapsed while the pair were on it or had fallen earlier.

Schwartz and Devore were corrections officers at a state prison outside Ordway and members of the Olney Springs Volunteer Fire Department. Schwartz is survived by three children, and Devore is survived by a wife and four children.

Gov. Bill Ritter toured Ordway Wednesday and expressed sympathy for Schwartz and Devore's families. He said it was too early to place a dollar amount on the damage.

The Fort Carson blaze, about 60 miles south of Denver, was only 10 percent contained by midday Wednesday, but the weather turned cold by evening and snow began to fall.

As many as 800 people were forced to leave their homes, but they were allowed to return Wednesday.

The cause of the fire was unknown.

A single-engine plane crashed after dumping fire-retardant slurry on the blaze Tuesday, killing the pilot, Gert Marais, 42, of Fort Benton, Mont., said Fort Carson spokesman Maj. Sean Ryan.

Marais worked for a company that supplies aerial firefighting services to Colorado State Forest Service, Ryan said. The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating.

The third fire was burning near Carbondale in the western Colorado mountains, about 120 miles west of Denver. It was about 70 percent contained, and most area residents were returning to their homes Wednesday.

Firefighters in Carbondale got help from the weather Wednesday when temperatures dropped into the 30s and intermittent light snow fell.

That blaze was also under investigation.


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