BELLVUE, Colo. – Authorities grounded firefighting aircraft battling an out-of-control blaze scorching central Colorado on Wednesday, reacting with caution to witness reports of meteor sightings.
The temporary move came amid several reported sky sightings near the fire burning 1,100 acres, or nearly 2 square miles, west of Colorado Springs.
Chaffee County Sheriff W. Peter Palmer said his office received multiple reports, including one person who thought a meteorite might have landed in a wooded area north of Buena Vista. Palmer said officials could not confirm that report.
Meanwhile, the crew of a heavy air tanker spotted something while making a slurry run on the blaze, said Steve Segin, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
"They weren't sure what it was," Segin said, confirming the report of a possible meteor shower.
"They landed as they normally do to reload, and for safety reasons they grounded themselves until they could figure out what it was they saw," he said.
The Colorado sightings corresponded with reports of a possible meteor filed by the crews of two commercial aircraft over Liberal, Kan., said meteorologist Scott Entrekin of the National Weather Service in Boulder.
Other sky sightings were reported in Raton, N.M., Entrekin said.
Ian Gregor, a spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration, said he had no such reports. He also said there were no reported disruptions to commercial airline traffic.
Fire officials ordered four single-engine aircraft to stay on the ground as a precaution. Two heavy air tankers were also affected. The planes soon resumed their attack on the fire, Entrekin said.
The groundings came as firefighters were taking advantage of a break in the heat to ramp up their attack against wildfire burning on more than 100 square miles in the northern part of the state.
"Mother Nature has allowed us this window, and we have responded very aggressively," said Brett Haberstick, a spokesman for fire managers.
After three straight days of gusty winds and temperatures in the 90s, temperatures Wednesday were about 20 degrees cooler.
"We've been patient through those red flag conditions. Today we're going to be aggressive," said Bill Hahnenberg, who is leading the fight against the 65,738-acre fire west of Fort Collins.
Conditions were also better in central Colorado near Lake George, where the blaze is more than 20 percent contained, despite the meteor warning.
A fire that broke out Tuesday in northwestern Colorado spread to about 3 square miles, or 2,000 acres, forcing some evacuations in a subdivision, but residents were able to return that night. Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz said the fire is believed to have started from a cigarette thrown from a vehicle.
The largest Colorado blaze west of Fort Collins was 55 percent contained and has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9. Hahnenberg said it could be weeks or even months before it's finally controlled.
In Arizona, dense smoke from a wildfire near Payson prompted a health watch in the Phoenix area. Residents were asked to avoid using gas-powered lawn mowers and to limit driving or carpool.
Meanwhile, a 385-acre fire near Sequoia National Park in California was 70 percent contained, Kern County fire officials said Wednesday.
Two hundred firefighters are battling the blaze on the northwest side of Lake Isabella and 200 more are on their way, said Forest Service spokeswoman Cindy Thill.
About 160 structures, including homes and cabins near the park, were evacuated, but area residents were allowed back in their homes at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
No structures have burned and no injuries have been reported, Thill said.
Residents in San Diego County, meanwhile, have been allowed to home near a 995-acre fire. Full containment was expected Wednesday night or Thursday morning.
— In Wyoming, nearly 300 firefighters are battling a wildfire burning in remote and mountainous area of the Medicine Bow National Forest that has burned about 4 square miles since Sunday. An 800-acre wildfire that began Tuesday in Wyoming and crossed over into Colorado is 90 percent contained.
— In New Mexico, a fire that has destroyed 242 homes and businesses in southern New Mexico was 60 percent contained. A fire in the Gila Wilderness, the largest in state history, is at 463 square miles and is 80 percent contained.
— In Arizona, the wildfire causing haze in Phoenix made a rapid run to the east, spreading under twin transmission lines that send power to the state's major metropolitan areas. Firefighters were reinforcing containment lines to the north Wednesday to keep the blaze from reaching two small communities about three miles away. It's 8,100 acres, up from 3,700 on Tuesday.
— In Nevada, an 18-square-mile wildfire north of Ely was 37 percent contained.
— In Hawaii, the largest wildfire of the season has scorched at least 5,200 acres on the Big Island. Two separate fires have been burning there since Monday. One came dangerously close to a hospital and forced the closure of its emergency room. A 6-acre fire in Maui that damaged three homes was contained late Tuesday.