By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) – Gusting winds and stubborn hot, dry weather in southwestern Colorado helped stoke a largely uncontrolled wildfire that grew by nearly a third to more than 22,000 acres (8,900 hectares) on Monday, with more than 2,000 homes under evacuation order.
The 12-day-old conflagration, dubbed the 416 Fire, was by far the largest and most threatening of at least a half-dozen blazes raging across Colorado as the 2018 summer wildfire season heated up across the Western United States.
About 400 miles (645 km) to the north, a blaze that erupted over the weekend prompted the evacuation of at least six small communities in Albany County, Wyoming, near the Colorado border, the U.S. Forest Service said.
The so-called Badger Creek Fire, burning in the Medicine Bow National Forest, was listed at 150 acres (60 hectares) with zero containment on Monday morning, but had expanded by late afternoon, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Aaron Voos said by telephone.
“It’s grown substantially since the last mapping and is now much larger,” Voos said. “We’ve had very high winds today.”
The fire was burning in stands of dead and dying lodgepole pines stricken in large numbers by a bark beetle infestation, the Forest Service said.
The team fighting the 416 Fire said isolated showers were several days away, and that hot, dry, windy conditions were ripe for spreading the flames on Monday. Humidity was about 6 percent, and winds were expected to gust up to 25 miles per hour (40 kph), authorities said.
“Weather conditions remain critical,” the multiagency Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team that is coordinating firefighting efforts reported in its latest bulletin.
After doubling in size from Saturday to Sunday, the wildfire, 13 miles (21 km) north of the small city of Durango, grew by 32 percent to 22,131 acres (8,956 hectares) from Sunday to Monday, the team said.
Residents of nearly 860 homes were ordered to flee on Sunday, bringing to about 2,000 the number of dwellings placed under evacuation, said spokeswoman Megan Graham for La Plata County, Colorado.
A 32-mile (52-km) stretch of U.S. Highway 550, which has served as a buffer for homes on the eastern edge of the fire, was closed on Monday, officials said.
TEN PERCENT CONTAINED
All 1.8 million acres (730,000 hectares) of the San Juan National Forest in southwestern Colorado were due to be closed to visitors by Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a statement, citing the fire danger.
More than 800 firefighters battled the blaze, which was 10 percent contained, unchanged from Sunday.
No buildings have been destroyed so far, but flames had crept to within a few hundred yards of homes, with multiple aircraft dropping water and flame retardant, according to Inciweb, an interagency fire report.
The report said containment was not expected before the end of the month.
Bob Oravec, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that while winds diminished on Monday from the weekend, “It’s still a fan on the fire. It won’t be until Tuesday before the winds really die down.”
The NWS posted red-flag warnings for extreme fire danger for large portions of the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Peter Cooney)