Smoke from wildfire 60 miles away blankets Denver

Posted June 12, 2012, at 9:20 p.m.

LOVELAND, Colo. — A northern Colorado wildfire 60 miles away wrapped Denver in a pungent cloud of smoke for several hours Tuesday and complicated the aerial offensive against the spreading mountain blaze, which has killed one person and destroyed more than 100 structures.

In southern New Mexico, a 56-square-mile fire threatening the village of Ruidoso had damaged or destroyed at least 175 homes and other structures, authorities confirmed Tuesday. Workers found only heaps of burned metal and other debris on home sites hit hardest by the Little Bear fire.

“It’s truly heartbreaking to see the damage done to this beautiful part of the country,” New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said after touring the area.

With at least 19 large fires burning in nine states, President Barack Obama called Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to assure him that the federal government stood ready to provide personnel, equipment and emergency grants for Colorado and other states battling fire. Obama also tried to reach Martinez, but her office said poor reception in the fire zone kept the two from connecting.

The 68-square-mile High Park Fire in Colorado shrouded downtown Denver, some 60 miles south, in a smoky haze early Tuesday. The smoke temporarily grounded the air attack on the fire, but helicopters and tanker planes took to the skies by midday.

Larimer County authorities allowed some residents to return home — but issued 25 more evacuation notices to residents on the fire’s western flank.

The wildfires in the drought-stricken West have tested federal resources.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced late Monday the agency was contracting eight heavy air tankers to increase the aging national fleet to 17.

Still, Colo. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet urged President Barack Obama to sign a bill that would allow the Forest Service to buy as many as seven large air tankers outright. The U.S. House and Senate passed the bill last week.

In Colorado’s Larimer County, authorities and family said Linda Steadman, 62, perished inside her mountain cabin. Her home received two evacuation warnings that weren’t answered, and a firefighter tried to reach the cabin before fire overtook the site, Sheriff Justin Smith said.

Across the West:

—California: A wildfire that briefly threatened homes in Kern County was fully contained.

—Colorado: The 68-square-mile High Park Fire is 5 percent contained. As many as 800 firefighters are expected on the lines by Wednesday. Ten air tankers and 14 water dropping helicopters are attacking the blaze.

—New Mexico: Nearly 1,000 firefighters and more than 200 National Guardsmen are battling the 56-square-mile Little Bear fire. Containment is 30 percent. More than 500 firefighters bolstered lines around the Gila fire, the country’s largest at 438 square miles.

—Utah: Two wildfires blackened 4,000 acres in Fishlake National Forest in southern Utah. A third fire believed to have been sparked by target shooting near Centerville, 15 miles north of Salt Lake City, was quickly contained late Monday.

—Wyoming: A 4-square-mile blaze at Guernsey State Park is 80 percent contained. Six helicopters and 600 firefighters are deployed. Firefighters contained 95 percent of a 13-square-mile fire in Medicine Bow National Forest and completely contained a 1,700-acre fire in Weston County.

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Associated Press writers Juan Carlos Llorca in Ruidoso, N.M.; Rema Rahman and Colleen Slevin in Denver; Bob Moen in Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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