(AP) A spring storm moving into Colorado Wednesday was expected to bring rain and snow to most of the state, helping firefighters battle blazes that killed three people, scorched thousands of acres and forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
Winds gusting up to 50 mph along the Front Range and eastern plains fanned flames that spread out quickly across 7,100 acres - or 11 square miles - of grassland near Ordway and forced the evacuation of all of its 1,200 residents. At least 20 buildings - including four within town limits- were damaged, fire information officer Chris Sorensen said. That fire was 50 percent contained by late Tuesday.
Two people died in that blaze, though officials haven't released details.
A single-engine air tanker crashed, killing the pilot, who was battling a blaze at Fort Carson that had scorched 9,000 acres - about 14 square miles - and forced the evacuation of people living near the base. Firefighters were unable to get any part of that blaze contained by late last night, base spokesman Capt. Gregory Dorman said. Two shelters were set up at the post and another at a nearby community college to house the evacuees.
The name of the pilot has not been released.
A third fire in the western Colorado mountains injured one person and damaged at least two homes.
In Ordway, the darkened town without electricity stood deserted as smoke hung like fog late Tuesday with all but a handful of residents having left town for the nearby communities of Sugar City and Crowley, where officials set up a shelter. An unknown number of residents were allowed to remain in a nursing care facility in a section of Ordway not threatened by the fire, Sorensen said.
Brian Walker, 45, stood ready to save his house from the flames armed with a chainsaw, a shovel, and a water hose.
"Well, I got a yard, and I got a home and I want to keep it," he said. "I thought if the fire came, I thought I could do whatever I could to stop it."
Helicopter footage shot by KCNC-TV showed at least three houses fully engulfed in flames on the plains near the town about 122 miles southeast of Denver.
At least three heavy air tankers, each capable of carrying up to 2,500 gallons of fire retardant were sent to Ordway, said Steve Segin, a spokesman with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which helps coordinate response to fires. Firefighters requested a total of seven heavy air tankers.
At least two state highways were closed.
Crowley County Sheriff Miles Clark said he's asked the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to help investigate the cause.
All three fires broke out after a wetter than normal winter was followed by a dry March.
Gov. Bill Ritter declared a state of emergency, freeing up state resources to help fight the fire and immediately making available $500,000, while FEMA agreed to provide federal money to help pay for firefighting efforts.
The Army said the 9,000-acre wildfire was burning in the rolling hills and grassland that rise up from the plains to meet the pine forest in the mountains on Fort Carson outside Colorado Springs, about 60 miles south of Denver.
One state highway was closed. The cause of that fire hadn't been determined.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus said the single-engine air tanker that crashed, one of two sent to help battle the blaze, was based in northeastern Colorado.
A wildfire near Carbondale, in the mountains about 120 miles west of Denver, blackened about 300 acres and injured one resident. Officials earlier had estimated the fire at about 1,000 acres.
Garfield County sheriff's spokeswoman Tanny McGinnis said she had no information on the extent or nature of the injuries. Some of the evacuated residents were allowed back late Tuesday.
That fire was about 25 percent contained late Tuesday.
Much of the state was under a National Weather Service red flag warning Tuesday, signifying high danger.
Aside from the wind, humidity around Ordway was low and temperatures reached into the 80s Tuesday afternoon.
Dry conditions on the plains and in some mountain valleys contrasted with deep snow at higher elevations.