LAKE GEORGE, Colo. – Aided by cooler weather and calmer wind, weary fire crews expected to make more progress Friday on an out-of-control wildfire burning on 100,000 acres in Colorado.
The improved outlook came just days after flames up to 80 feet high raced through tinder-dry trees, forcing crews to pull back as the northeast edge of the blaze raced toward small mountain towns 35 miles southwest of Denver.
With that threat reduced, Douglas County lifted voluntary evacuations Thursday from several small communities between the fire and Denver's suburbs.
The fire was 15 percent contained Friday morning, but more than 5,400 people remained out of their homes because of mandatory evacuations. On Thursday, it was just 5 percent contained.
Crews continued to dig fire lines along the southern edge to keep flames from spreading, and hundreds of additional firefighters were arriving to help the more than 1,700 already fighting the blaze.
"We're putting firefighters all around this fire to start trying to extinguish those hot spots and get this thing under control," Colorado State forester Jim Hubbard said Thursday.
Colorado is in the middle of one of its worst droughts in years, resulting in bone-dry trees and brush — the perfect fuel for wind-driven flames.
The fire, 20 miles long and 14 miles wide, winds from the foothills dotted with small mountain towns to near Denver's outlying suburbs. It has charred about 156 square miles, leaving blackened forest floors and skeletal trees.
Twenty-two homes have been destroyed.
"It's like you lose somebody in the family," said John Ocken, 56, whose home three miles north of Lake George was lost. "We've had a lot of great times up there, but that's the chance you take."
For the second straight night, worried homeowners packed a high school gym in Woodland Park to hear the latest from fire officials. Martin assured them that saving homes and lives was his team's top concern.
"We still have crews in there working to save structures," he said. "The subdivisions are our priority."
The military has activated four modified C-130 planes to help aircraft dropping slurry and water on the fires. Two Army battalions and a Marine battalion, totaling more than 1,500 soldiers, have also been activated.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also granted $20 million to Colorado on Thursday to defray firefighting costs.
The fire is one of at least seven burning in the state, including an 11,892-acre blaze that was 30 percent contained near Glenwood Springs, about 150 miles west of Denver.
In northeastern New Mexico, about 1,200 firefighters were working to slow a wildfire on the Philmont Scout Ranch and Carson National Forest. The blaze, which began early this month, has charred 91,000 acres and was 25 percent contained Thursday.
Another fire broke out Thursday four miles northeast of Pecos and had grown to 1,165 acres by evening. "It's very active — running, spotting, torching, crowning in the ponderosa pine," said Dolores Maese, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe National Forest.