June 9, 2018 / 8:38 PM / 2 months ago

Colorado wildfire spreads as winds strengthen

(Reuters) - A stubborn Colorado wildfire grew by around a fifth on Saturday and was expected to continue to grow Sunday, consuming sparsely populated land as low humidity and high winds left firefighters bracing for it to spread, officials said.

An additional 220 homes were evacuated Saturday, said Megan Graham, a spokeswoman for La Plata County, Colorado.

The total number of homes evacuated during the fires burning in southwest Colorado has reached more than 1,300 residential structures, Graham said, and the fire had burnt more than 8,691 acres, according to the last aerial survey, early Saturday, she said.

“It’s expected to keep growing, unfortunately,” she said.

Fire officials said in a release that the weather will likely make things worse Sunday, as more severe winds are expected.

“Southwest to west winds will be strengthening across south west Colorado this weekend ahead of a Pacific storm that will be tracking across the Northwest Rockies,” officials said in a release.

The Haines Index, used by firefighters to assess the stability and dryness of air over fires, is at its maximum level of six, officials said.

“This indicates that there is a high potential for extreme fire behavior, intensity, and growth,” they added.

As of Saturday morning, the Colorado fire remained at 10 percent contained, but it had grown by about 1,500 acres (607 hectares) since Friday, mostly in less inhabited areas to the west that officials said they were monitoring while they concentrate on protecting structures to the east, north and south.

In 2017, a near-record 10 million acres (4 million hectares) were burned in U.S. wildfires, the National Interagency Coordination Center said. The same agency issued a June forecast for “above-normal significant large fire potential” this month in Southern California and the Four Corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, because of a deepening drought and ample fuel for wildfires.

Firefighters have kept the Colorado fire to the west of Highway 550 and away from structures, county commissioners in La Plata County, Colorado, said in a Saturday Facebook post. Fire officials said in the Saturday update that Highway 550 was closed from mile marker 32 to 47 and pilot cars were escorting traffic through there.

A new blaze about 13 miles to the west, known as the Burro fire, prompted U.S. Forest Service officials on Saturday to close part of the Colorado trail in the San Juan National Forest.

FILE PHOTO: A helicopter drops water on the 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado, U.S. in this June 4, 2018 handout photo obtained by Reuters June 5, 2018. La Plata County/Handout via REUTERS

Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Richard Pullin

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