Video: Wildfires spreading in Southwest

  1. Closed captioning of: Wildfires spreading in Southwest

    >>> tonight there are ominous signs in the southwest that this could be one of the most active wildfire seasons on record. right now crews are working to contain fires across seven states, and this week scientists warn that dry, dangerous conditions are likely to get worse this summer. we get our report tonight from nbc's mike tiabi.

    >> reporter: as the flames move closer to small mining towns, hundreds of residents gathered what they could before evacuating.

    >> i come down and saw those flames on the side of the mountain. that was like am i going to make it or not?

    >> reporter: so far all have made it to safety, but this is the start of a dangerous wildfire season. right now out west there are ten active fires, including three that are huge and especially dangerous. two in arizona, and one in colorado north of fort collins where more than 500 firefighters are only halfway to containing the blaze.

    >> our trees are very dry, and our relative humidities are low. you know, i knew that it was growing.

    >> reporter: there are similar frustrations for those in the path of arizona's gladiator fire that between thursday and friday night more than doubled in size to more than 14,000 acres. containment just 10%. like much of the country, the west and southwest hardly had any winter. little precipitation and the warmest average temperatures for more than a century and more of the same in the noaa summer forecast.

    >> we're already in a drought. when you have that combined with the heat in the forecast, that can make a bad situation even worse .

    >> reporter: so there will be more scenes like these from the gladiator fire. people fleeing with whatever is important before the advance of one fire after another.

    >> i stayed as long as i could, and now i just hope for the best.

    >> reporter: the best would be a season of soaking rains and cooler temperatures, which are not at present in the future. mike taibi, nbc news, los

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updated 5/19/2012 9:23:30 PM ET 2012-05-20T01:23:30

Lower temperatures and higher humidity Saturday were helping crews assigned to a wildfire that has scorched 12 square miles in northern Colorado, one of several burning across the West.

The fire, which started Monday about 20 miles northwest of Fort Collins, had prompted officials to evacuate about 80 homes, but all residents were allowed to return by Friday night. No buildings have been damaged, and the blaze was about 45 percent contained Saturday afternoon.

Reghan Cloudman with the U.S. Forest Service said the area received about 0.15 inches of rain Saturday morning, which "is better than nothing." Scattered rain storms moved through the area in the afternoon, and temperatures were expected to remain in the 50s throughout the day — more than a 20-degree drop from highs during the previous three days.

"The rain is definitely helping firefighters out there," Cloudman said. "It's good news, but we don't want people to let their guard down."

The U.S. Attorney's Office said 56-year-old James J. Weber of Fort Collins started the fire with an outdoor stove while camping in the Roosevelt National Forest.

U.S. Forest Service investigators said Weber, a mental health counselor at Colorado State University, tried to stamp out the fire Monday but fled as the blaze spread. He later reported starting the fire to the Larimer County Sheriff's Office, officials said.

There is no cell phone service in the area where the man was camping.

The Forest Service issued Weber a citation for causing a fire without a permit, and he faces a $300 fine. Authorities also plan to pursue restitution for the blaze.

Weber's attorney, Joseph A. Gavaldon, declined to comment about how the fire started or any events that followed, but he said his client is praying with "hope that this gets under control."

The Colorado blaze, which has required the resources of more than 500 firefighters, two planes and five helicopters, was one of several burning in the West.

Wildfires also have charred terrain in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah.

  • In Nevada, a fire grew to 27 square miles and threatened sage grouse and mule deer habitat. No homes were in danger, and no injuries were reported. The blaze was about 50 percent contained Saturday and remains under investigation.
  • In Arizona, slowing winds aided firefighters battling three major blazes. The state's largest fire, the Sunflower Fire, continued to burn about 16,600 acres just north of Mesa. Officials say nearly 600 firefighters helped keep it from spreading. A 10-mph breeze helped 900 firefighters get the Gladiator Fire below 13,000 acres and 10 percent contained. The Bull Flat Fire, which has struck more than 2,000 acres in the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, was about 80 percent contained.
  • In New Mexico, crews battled a lightning-caused fire that has scorched 545 acres in the Gila National Forest in the southwestern part of the state. No structures were at risk, and no injuries were reported. About seven trails remained closed in the forest and more than 110 firefighters around the state were helping battle the blaze Saturday.
  • In Utah, rain and cooler temperatures helped slow a wildfire that burned nearly 2 square miles in the western part of the state. Firefighters contained the blaze late Friday. No structures were threatened, and no injuries were reported. Authorities say the fire was sparked accidentally Thursday by a passing car.
  • In Southern Oregon, crews worked Saturday to extinguish a 462-acre wildfire near the California and Nevada borders. The fire eight miles east of Lakeview, Ore., near Highway 140 was not immediately threatening people or property, but firefighters said they were concerned hot spots could ignite later in the fire season. The fire is believed to be human-caused and is burning on private land and in the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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