By DAN ELLIOTT, Associated Press
LOVELAND, Colo. (AP) — Grayish-brown smoke from a large wildfire blamed for killing a woman in her home blanketed the foothills of northern Colorado on Tuesday.
The 68-square-mile Colorado wildfire has damaged more than 100 structures and forced hundreds of people from their homes. However, firefighters there and at a 56-square-mile fire burning in southern New Mexico have begun to make some progress digging line around the blazes.
In Colorado, a smoky haze stretched early in the day from near the Wyoming border to the Denver area, signaling good news for firefighters. The smoke was trapped by cool air and calm skies, National Weather Service meteorologist Frank Cooper said. Strong winds that helped spread blaze in Colorado and New Mexico over the weekend carried smoke as far away as Kansas and Nebraska at the time.
Visibility was reduced to just about a mile near Longmont, Colo., in the morning and the state health department warned that air is unhealthy to breathe in such conditions.
The haze began to dissipate as the weather got warmer but forecasters say it could possibly return Wednesday morning.
The New Mexico fire, near the mountain community of Ruidoso, is now 30 percent contained after firefighters in took advantage of a break in hot, windy weather to build lines on Monday.
The Colorado fire, fire burning 15 miles west of Fort Collins, was 5 percent and firefighters were hoping to double that progress Tuesday.
Authorities there plan to allow 90 residents back to their homes but others elsewhere were being warned to be ready to leave.
The massive wildfires in the drought-parched states have tested the resources of state and federal crews.
Wyoming diverted personnel and aircraft from two fires there to help with the Colorado fire, and Canada lent two aerial bombers following the recent crash of a U.S. tanker in Utah. An elite federal firefighting crew also arrived to try to begin containing a fire that destroyed at least 118 structures.
The U.S. Forest Service said late Monday it would add more aircraft to its aerial firefighting fleet, contracting one air tanker from Alaska and four from Canada. Two more air tankers were being activated in California.
The announcement came after Colorado's U.S. House delegation demanded that the agency deploy more resources to the fire.
Authorities confirmed Monday that one person died in the Colorado fire.
The family of Linda Steadman, 62, had reported her missing after the fire started Saturday, sheriff's officials said. Her home received two evacuation notices that appeared to go to her answering machine, and a firefighter who tried to get past a locked gate to her home to warn her was chased out by flames that he later saw engulf her home, Sheriff Justin Smith said.
Investigators found remains in her burned home Monday that haven't been positively identified yet, but her family issued a statement saying Steadman died in the cabin she loved, Smith said.
In a letter to the Forest Service, Colorado's congressional delegation said the need for firefighting aircraft was "dire." U.S. Sen. Mark Udall urged President Barack Obama to sign legislation that would allow the Forest Service to contract at least seven large air tankers to add to its fleet of 13 — which includes the two on loan from Canada.
The temporary additions to the firefighting aircraft fleet will make 17 air tankers available to the forest service, which has deployed 10 air tankers, 62 helicopters and 4,000 personnel to more than 100 fires nationwide.
One of the region's most potent aerial firefighting forces — two Wyoming Air National Guard C-130s fitted to drop slurry — sat on a runway in Cheyenne, 50 miles north of the Colorado fire. The reason: The Forest Service, by law, cannot call for military resources until it deems that its fleet is fully busy. It also takes 36 hours to mobilize the crews and planes, officials said.
"They just haven't thrown the switch yet because they feel like there are adequate resources available," said Mike Ferris of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.