ORDWAY, Colo. – Firefighters resumed the battle Wednesday against three wildfires that blazed through nearly 20,000 acres in Colorado, killing three people and forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate.
Two of the dead were volunteer firefighters who were killed when a bridge damaged by flames collapsed under their fire truck, a state lawmaker said. The third was the pilot of an air tanker.
Wind gusted up to 50 mph along the Rocky Mountain Front Range and eastern plains on Tuesday, fanning flames that quickly spread across 8,900 acres — or 14 square miles — of grassland near Ordway. All 1,200 residents of the town were told to leave, and they had not been allowed back in by Wednesday.
On Wednesday morning, wind was blowing at less than 10 mph at Pueblo, about 50 miles west of Ordway, the National Weather Service said. Firefighters hoped rain and snow expected later in the day would help them corral the blaze.
The Ordway fire was 80 percent contained by Wednesday morning but had damaged at least 24 buildings, eight within town limits, fire information officer Katherine Sanguinetti said.
Authorities said firefighters John Schwartz Jr., 38, and Terry Davore, 29, died in the bridge collapse. Both were corrections officers at a state prison outside Ordway and were members of the Olney Springs Volunteer Fire Department, said Ari Zavaras, director of the state Department of Corrections.
State Rep. Cory Gardner, whose district includes Ordway, told legislative leaders both men had young children.
Former state Rep. Mark Cloer of Sugar City, near Ordway, told lawmakers that ranchers would need emergency feed for cattle because the fire destroyed feedlots.
A firefighting plane crashed near Fort Carson, killing the pilot, Gert Marais, 42, of Fort Benton, Mont., Fort Carson spokesman Maj. Sean Ryan said.
Marais worked for a Sterling, Colo., company that supplies aerial firefighting services to the Colorado State Forest Service, Ryan said.
The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating.
Marais was battling a blaze there that charred 9,600 acres — about 15 square miles — and forced the evacuation of people living near the Army base.
Authorities could not say how many people had been evacuated at the Fort Carson fire, but none had been allowed back into their homes by Wednesday morning.
About 300 firefighters were at the fire but no containment lines had been established, El Paso County sheriff's Sgt. Jeanette Whitney said.
Firefighting aircraft were grounded for a safety stand-down after the fatal crash but were cleared to fly again Wednesday if needed, said Steve Segin, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordinating Center, which organizes state and federal firefighting agencies.
A team from the coordinating center was preparing to take control of the firefighting effort later Wednesday, an indication of how serious the situation was.
Two shelters were set up at the post and a third at a nearby community college to house evacuees. The cause of the fire at the base outside Colorado Springs, about 60 miles south of Denver, hadn't been determined.
A third fire, near Carbondale in the western Colorado mountains, damaged at least two homes and left a fisherman with minor injuries.
Rain was possible in parts of the area during the afternoon and there was a chance of up to a foot of snow in Colorado's eastern mountains beginning Wednesday evening and lasting into Thursday morning, the weather service said.
All but a handful of Ordway residents had left for the nearby communities of Sugar City and Crowley, where officials set up a shelter. An unknown number of residents were allowed to remain in a nursing care facility in a section of Ordway not threatened by the fire, fire information officer Chris Sorensen said.
Armed with a chain saw, shovel and hose, Brian Walker stood ready to save his house from the flames.
"Well, I got a yard, and I got a home and I want to keep it," said Walker, 45. "I thought if the fire came, I thought I could do whatever I could to stop it."
Helicopter footage showed at least three houses fully engulfed in flames near the town about 120 miles southeast of Denver. Two state highways were closed.
At least three heavy air tankers, each capable of carrying up to 2,500 gallons of fire retardant, were sent to Ordway, Segin said.
Crowley County Sheriff Miles Clark said he asked the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to help investigate the cause.
All three fires broke out after a wetter than normal winter was followed by a dry March.
Gov. Bill Ritter declared a state of emergency, freeing up state resources to help fight the fires. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also agreed to provide money for the firefighting efforts.
The wildfire near Carbondale, in the mountains about 120 miles west of Denver, blackened about 1,000 acres. It was about 25 percent contained Wednesday.