Speed of Wildfires Startles Homeowners

Fire officials and residents living near the 137,000-acre wildfire southwest of Denver have learned just how fast a fire can move. 

"I spoke to homeowners who fled their homes, only to watch them burn in their rearview mirrors," said Steve Segin, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. 

The blinding speed of the fire's march through the forest poses a particularly severe danger to life and property. Normally, crews can reach fires by the time they reach 14 to 15 acres, but with drought making vegetation kindling-dry, this year's fires have often grown to 200 to 300 acres before crews can get there. 

And the fires are often accompanied by strong winds that make it too dangerous to put crews in front of them. 

Firefighter Kirt Engel of Missoula, Mont., had to flee to a safety zone four times in one day last week. 

"I've never had to do that. I've never had to move three times. This is the driest I have ever seen a forest," said Engel, who has been fighting fires for four years. 

During a hearing last week for Forest Service technician Terry Barton, who is accused of setting the fire, investigators testified that once a match that she lit hit dry grass, the fire raced away at a speed of about a foot a second. 

Barton remained in jail Sunday, charged with four federal counts, including arson. 

While the number of wildfires so far this year is a little less than the 10-year average, they have consumed 2.23 million acres, more than double the average 932,000 acres. 

They have also destroyed an estimated 1,500 homes, barns, garages and other buildings nationwide, about double the destruction in each of the past three years. 

At the fire burning outside Denver, 115 homes have been destroyed. 

Many residents in Woodland Park began packing boxes after the fire burned within seven miles of this community of 7,500. Police Sgt. David Hoffman had pictures, wedding videos and awards for his police work piled up in boxes lining his hallway. 

"It's not doom and gloom, it's just good sense," he said. "The way the fire is burning, you never know what it's going to do," he said.