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Woman, man found dead at 1 of 16 homes burned by Colorado wildfire; 3rd person missing
CONIFER, Colo. (AP) ' The bodies of a man and a woman have been found at one of 16 homes destroyed by a wildfire that has forced hundreds to flee the mountainous area southwest of Denver, authorities said Tuesday. A third person was missing from the same area where the man and woman were found.
The body of a woman was found outside the burned home on Monday evening and a man's body was found inside on Tuesday, said Daniel Hatlestad of the Jefferson County Incident Management Team
Authorities do not yet know whether the deaths were caused by the fire, which has grown to about 7 square miles.
The fire is burning several miles and mountain ridges west of Denver's tightly populated southwestern suburbs, which are not under threat. The area of pines and grassland is mountainous and sparsely populated, dotted with hamlets and the occasional expensive home. It is about 25 miles southwest of Denver at an altitude that ranges from 7,000 to 8,200 feet.
The fire threat in much of Colorado has grown during an unusually dry and warm March. The potential for significant fires is increasing across parts of the southwest although most western states face normal wildfire danger, according to National Interagency Fire Center reports.
About 900 homes have been evacuated and the residents of another 6,500 houses were warned to be ready to evacuate on Tuesday because of a spot fire sparked outside the main fire. Many of the homes are in winding canyons, and authorities say giving people advance notice can help prevent accidents during evacuations.
Kelley had said earlier that the wildfire may have been a controlled burn from last week that sprang back to life because of strong wind gusts.
Ryan Lockwood, a spokesman for the Colorado State Forest Service, said his agency conducted the controlled burn on Thursday on land belonging to the Denver Water Board as part of an ongoing attempt to reduce fire danger. Such burns are common in the West to thin out vegetation in the hopes of preventing fires.
"This has been going on for the past year," Lockwood said.
Stacy Chesney, a spokeswoman for Denver Water, said decisions about prescribed burns are left to the state forest service, which has a contract for protecting land that feeds into reservoirs. Chesney said wildfires can damage water sheds, so the agency was "trying to be proactive."
Spokesmen for Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado State Forest Service that contracted for the controlled burn said they did not know if the state could be held liable for damages from the fire.
Wind gusts that reached near 90 mph fanned the flames on Monday, preventing air crews from spraying retardant and keeping firefighters mostly on the defensive. With winds lighter Tuesday, firefighters were attacking the fire on the ground and dropping slurry from two air tankers.
On Monday, Hatlestad said the fire burned so hot that it melted farm and construction machinery, creating a silver stream of molten metal and softening the soles of some deputies' shoes. He said the smoke was so thick that he couldn't see where he was going and had to navigate by looking out the side of his vehicle to see the edge of the road.
Officials urged patience at a meeting with about 60 frustrated evacuees gathered at Conifer High School. The evacuated residents groaned when Hatlestad announced that the fire was not contained and expected to spread to the northeast.
Hatlestad repeatedly told residents asking about their home streets: "I can't tell you where the fire will go." Hatlestad had no estimate when they could get home or when homeowners would find out whether their homes have been spared.
Some evacuees shook their heads. Others scoffed. Hatlestad told them, "Know that there are hundreds of people out there right now working to save your homes."
Residents remained visibly anxious, checking their phones every few moments for Twitter updates on the fire's path. Many gathered around laptops to identify burned property while waiting for officials to tell them whether their homes survived.
Among the frustrated evacuees was 47-year-old John Ryan, whose home was in the northeasterly path of the fire Tuesday afternoon. He urged authorities to speed identification of the victims and the burned homes.
"I understand that it's a difficult situation, but it's our house, and we're in the target zone," Ryan said, then went back to checking his phone.
One evacuee left behind a Corvette and a small airplane to escape the flames. Cindi Sjaardema said it was the first time in 34 years that she has had to flee the area.
"We decided, 'Let's move now,' thinking we'd make two trips. But when we left, we passed a checkpoint and they said we couldn't go back," she said. "My husband argued with the guy, (and) said, 'I left a Corvette back there, I'm going back.' But I said, 'No way. It's insured. It's just stuff.' We got out, and thank God."
Associated Press writers Rema Rahman and Steven K. Paulson in Denver and Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this story.
Follow Kristen Wyatt at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt