BAILEY, Colo. – Firefighters labored Thursday to protect hundreds of homes from a wind-whipped wildfire that had more than doubled in size in 24 hours.
U.S. Forest Service officials said 1,800 acres of grass, brush and ponderosa pine had burned near Bailey, a town of about 4,400 people in the foothills 35 miles southwest of Denver. Only about 10 percent of the blaze was contained as of Thursday morning.
"We just can't be very aggressive with this fire right now. We just don't have enough crews and air power," fire information officer Dave Steinke said.
About 200 firefighters battled overnight to protect homes, schools and other buildings. No homes were destroyed, but a barn and a shed burned Wednesday, officials said. More firefighters were being brought in Thursday, as well as two larger helicopters and more air tankers.
"Today is the first day to really attack the fire and try to gain some control," Steinke said.
The entire town was evacuated Wednesday afternoon and four schools were closed when flames crept to within a quarter-mile of downtown.
Most residents were allowed back in their homes by nightfall when cooler weather eased the fire threat, but the sheriff's department said many areas were without electricity or water. About 400 people were unable to return home.
The fire started Tuesday in an area popular with smokers, and Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener said some teens have been questioned. No arrests have been made, he said.
Weary residents watched Wednesday as smoke billowed above ridges near their homes.
"My house is right there," said Greg Ottinger, 37, pointing to a plume in the distance. "And the smoke is coming from right there."
The fire was burning just a few miles north of an area where 10,800 wooded acres burned and 51 homes were destroyed in 2000.
Regional forester Rick Cables said the blaze was the top-priority wildfire in the nation. Fires were also burning in dry brush in New Mexico and Arizona.
A 300-acre fire in the Magdalena Mountains in central New Mexico was about 75 percent contained Wednesday. Earlier, firefighters controlled a small fire on the Mescalero Apache reservation that briefly forced the evacuation of two housing areas.
In Arizona, about 220 firefighters battled a 1,000-acre fire in the Baboquivari Wilderness about 45 miles southwest of Tucson.
A winter drought has plagued much of the West, triggering an early start to the wildfire season.
On Tuesday, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens asked for a federal declaration of a drought emergency. And on Wednesday, Utah's Gov. Mike Leavitt declared a state of emergency and a statewide agricultural disaster.
"Conservation is the key to keeping a dire situation from turning catastrophic," Leavitt warned.