Killer US wildfires out of control

2012-06-12 20:50
Fire burns on a hill with homes in the foreground on the High Park wildfire near Fort Collins, Colorado. (Ed Andrieski, AP)

Fire burns on a hill with homes in the foreground on the High Park wildfire near Fort Collins, Colorado. (Ed Andrieski, AP) (Ed Andrieski)

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Bellvue - One person was dead as massive wildfires in drought-parched Colorado and New Mexico burned out of control, while Western lawmakers pleaded for updates to an ageing US aerial firefighting fleet needed to combat a fire season that lasts year-round.

About 600 firefighters were expected to be battling the fire by Tuesday, said incident commander Bill Hahnenberg. "We are a very high priority nationally. We can get all the resources we want and need," he said.

The Colorado fire has destroyed at least 118 structures, and hundreds of people have been forced to abandon their homes.

The US Forest Service said late on Monday it would add more aircraft to its aerial firefighting fleet, contracting one air tanker from the state of Alaska and four from Canada. Two more air tankers were being activated in California.

The announcement came after Colorado's US House congressional delegation demanded that the US Forest Service deploy more resources to the fire, which was totally uncontained.

The Larimer County sheriff's office confirmed on Monday that one person had died. The family of Linda Steadman, 62, issued a statement saying she died in the cabin she loved.

In a letter to the Forest Service, Colorado's congressmen said the need for firefighting aircraft was "dire." Colorado US Sen Mark Udall urged President Barack Obama to sign legislation that would allow the Forest Service to contract at least seven large air tankers to add to its fleet of 13 - which includes the two on loan from Canada.

The temporary additions to the firefighting aircraft fleet will make 17 air tankers available to the forest service, which has deployed 10 air tankers, 62 helicopters and 4 000 personnel to more than 100 fires nationwide.

One of the region's most potent aerial firefighting forces - two Wyoming Air National Guard C-130s fitted to drop slurry - sat on a runway in Cheyenne, 80km north of the Colorado fire. The reason: The US Forest Service, by law, cannot call for military resources until it deems that its fleet is fully busy. It also takes 36 hours to mobilize the crews and planes, officials said.

18 large wildfires

"They just haven't thrown the switch yet because they feel like there are adequate resources available," said Mike Ferris, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Centre in Boise, Idaho.

Colorado was using five of 13 air tankers available nationally, said Forest Service spokesperson Steve Segin.

At least 18 large wildfires are burning in nine US states. The National Interagency Fire Centre said 4 000 of 15 000 federal firefighters are deployed at fires around the country.

In New Mexico, firefighters used a break in the hot and windy weather and got new air and ground support to battle a fast-moving wildfire that charred tens of thousands of acres, damaged or destroyed 35 structures and forced hundreds of residents to leave their homes in the southern part of the state.

Elsewhere in New Mexico, firefighters made slow progress against the largest wildfire in state history. The blaze has charred 1 126km² of forest since it was sparked by lightning in mid-May, and was 37% contained on Monday.

US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has long insisted the federal government has enough resources to respond to a year-round wildfire season driven by drought, heat, decades of fighting forest fires rather than letting them run their natural course, and bark beetle pine tree kill.

"We have enough resources at this time to be able to deal with the fires we currently are dealing with and what we expect to have to deal with the rest of this fire season," Tidwell told The Associated Press last week. He emphasized that the forest service has the authority to transfer funds from other accounts to meet firefighting costs in any given year.

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