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Western Wildfires Prompt Thousands of Evacuations


Crews are busy across the West battling wildfires. In South Dakota, a mobile home was destroyed when flames scorched 3,000 acres in the Black Hills. Two subdivisions were evacuated. In rural southern Colorado, the Mason fire forced 5,000 people to leave their homes. None have burned so far, but officials say more than 700 homes are threatened. Lightning sparked that blaze nearly a week ago. Wind and hot temperatures helped it to grow quickly to more than 11,000 acres. NPR's Jeff Brady reports that more than 400 people are battling the fire by land and by air.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

JEFF BRADY reporting:

One hundred fifty miles south of Denver a helicopter returns with fire managers who viewed the charred landscape from the air. Now they'll drive back to the command center to plan the best way to fight the blaze.

It's been a difficult battle in steep, rocky terrain. Managers constantly worry about the safety of firefighters. They can send air tankers in to drop loads of red fire retardant on the flames, but at times there's been so much smoke that even planes were useless. Most of the acreage burned is on the Pike San Isabel National Forest and Grasslands. But in some places, the flames have traveled onto private land. As the Mason fire approached Michael Laskowski's 160-acre ranch, officials asked him to evacuate.

(Soundbite of cows mooing and water being poured)

BRADY: Laskowski goes about his chores watering the horses, not at his ranch, but at the Colorado State Fairgrounds in nearby Pueblo. He trucked them here Sunday night.

(Soundbite of song on radio)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...just country boys and girls getting down on the farm.

BRADY: A boom box plays country-western music. Laskowski says it keeps the animals calm. He has a bull here, a cow, a couple of goats and six horses. Laskowski had to leave two other horses back at the ranch.

Mr. MICHAEL LASKOWSKI (Rancher): One wouldn't get into a trailer and the other one, we brought her down here and she took a stall door off, and we figured she'd probably tear up the fairgrounds pretty well if we didn't take her back. So we took her home because the threat wasn't immediate. Now if the fire does come onto the property, we'll run back and get the other two horses.

BRADY: Are you concerned you wouldn't be able to get back on the property?

Mr. LASKOWSKI: Hell or high water wouldn't keep me off that property. No. No.

BRADY: Whether Laskowski will have to go back to rescue his other horses depends on if firefighters can bring the blaze under control in the next few days. Forest Service spokeswoman Barb Timock says some people were surprised the Mason fire ever got out of control. After several years of drought, there was more rain this past winter. But Timock says sometimes that's not a good thing.

Ms. BARB TIMOCK (Spokeswoman, Forest Service): We had a wet year. A lot of the fuels grew because of that. Grasses are sometimes a foot or more, you know, in height. And so--typically happens, they dry out. And when they're dry, now there's more to burn.

BRADY: Flames easily travel from that grass to kindling-dry ponderosa pine and oak trees. It'll take a few more wet years to reduce the fire danger on this high, desert landscape. Timock says the weather has calmed down a bit, but she says more dry, windy thunderstorms are headed this way and, so far, only a small part of the fire has been brought under control. Meantime, Colorado Governor Bill Owens has declared a state of emergency that frees up more money to help fight the blaze. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

STAMBERG: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.