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Published: Monday, 3/19/2012

Firefighters contain most of Colorado plains wildfire

Evacuation order lifted for town of 300

ASSOCIATED PRESS
A wildfire Sunday sends up a huge wall of smoke, forcing authorities to temporarily close a section of U.S. Highway 34 east of Yuma County, Colo., when the fire filled the skies with so much smoke that firefighters couldn't see the flames. A wildfire Sunday sends up a huge wall of smoke, forcing authorities to temporarily close a section of U.S. Highway 34 east of Yuma County, Colo., when the fire filled the skies with so much smoke that firefighters couldn't see the flames.
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WRAY, Colo. — Evacuated residents of the small Colorado town of Eckley have been allowed to return home after firefighters contained most of a wildfire on the state’s northeastern plains that filled the skies with so much smoke that firefighters couldn’t see the flames and a highway was closed.

Three firefighters were injured battling Sunday’s blaze, and two of them were hospitalized, Yuma County Sheriff Chad Day said Monday.

The town’s 300 residents were given the all-clear to return home about 9:15 p.m. Sunday. But the order remained in effect for an undetermined number of farms around the town that’s near the border with Kansas and Nebraska, about 150 miles northeast of Denver. As many as 1,000 residents may have been forced from their homes and were staying with friends and relatives, Day said.

“We’ll lift the evacuation order once we determine the fire is under control,” he said.

Day was taking an aerial survey of the damage Monday. He said one firefighter suffered minor burns to the face and was being treated at a nearby hospital. A second firefighter was being treated for smoke inhalation, while a third suffered minor burns to the arms.

More than a dozen area fire departments fought the fire, which started at about 1:15 p.m. Sunday south of Yuma and quickly spread toward Eckley, prompting the evacuation.

The wind-fueled grass fire destroyed at least two homes and threatened several others before it was reported 90 percent contained late Sunday night, after scorching parts of an 84-square-mile area.

The wall of smoke and dust was so bad after the fire broke out that some firefighters couldn’t see the fire and authorities had to temporarily close a section of U.S. Highway 34 east of Yuma.

A photo from the Yuma Sun shows the sky-high plume rising from the plains.

“The smoke is just thick and rising way up into the air,” Mike McCaleb, emergency manager in Washington County, said earlier Sunday. With high winds also kicking up dirt, “visibility was nothing.”

Chris Foltz, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Goodland, Kan., said the fire was fueled by sustained winds of 30 to 35 mph, and a gust of 62 mph was measured near Yuma at about 4:35 p.m. He said the small town of Kirk just south of the fire experienced a wind gust of 68 mph soon after the blaze started.

Also Sunday, an 80-acre fire east of Colorado Springs damaged three buildings, but no injuries were reported. Edison Fire Chief Mark Anderson said the fire was caused by a downed power line.

The fires follow a week of warm, dry weather that raised the fire danger across eastern Colorado. Smaller fires were sparked along the Front Range, one by a ditch burn that got out of control and another by fireworks.

Denver broke a weather record by hitting 76 degrees on Saturday.



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