Massive wildfires in drought-parched Colorado and New Mexico tested the resources of state and federal crews Monday and underscored the need to replenish an aging U.S. aerial firefighting fleet needed to combat a year-round fire season.
Wyoming diverted personnel and aircraft from two fires there to help with a 60-square-mile wildfire in northern Colorado. Canada also loaned two aerial bombers to fight the Colorado blaze following the recent crash of a U.S. tanker in Utah. And an elite federal firefighting crew arrived to try to begin containing a fire that destroyed at least 118 structures.
All told, about 600 firefighters will be battling the fire some 15 miles west of Fort Collins by today, 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 U.S. Forest Service said late 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 U.S. House congressional delegation demanded that the agency deploy more resources to the fire, which was zero percent contained and forced hundreds of people to abandon their homes. The Larimer County Sheriff's Office said it confirmed one person died in the fire -- but did not say whether the victim was a person previously reported missing.
In a letter to the Forest Service, Colorado's congressmen said the need for firefighting aircraft was "dire." Colorado Sen. Mark Udall urged President 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.
In New Mexico, firefighters got new air and ground support to battle a fast-moving wildfire that charred tens of thousands of acres and forced hundreds of residents to leave their homes in the southern part of the state.
Smoke filled the air in the mountain community of Ruidoso as evacuees gathered at a high school gymnasium to get an update on the lightning-sparked fire in the Sierra Blanca mountain range. The blaze exploded over the weekend and reached more than 54 square miles by Monday.
An estimated 35 structures have been damaged or destroyed by the blaze, and fire managers expect that number to grow once damage assessments are done.
At least 18 large wildfires are burning in nine U.S. states, forcing the reshuffling of fire crews and aircraft. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said 4,000 of 15,000 federal firefighters are currently deployed at fires around the country.