DENVER (AP) — An erratic wildfire charging through extremely dry land in a community near the Colorado ski town of Aspen destroyed three homes and forced people to flee in the middle of the night, authorities said Thursday.
It is one of more than 60 large blazes burning across the U.S., mostly in parts of the drought-stricken West where whipping winds and increasing heat have made it easy for flames to spread. Fires exploded across land in the Southwest that is gripped by severe drought and in an area of California north of deadly wildfires last year.
While people in the rest of the country watched fireworks to celebrate July 4, hundreds of people gathered around the Colorado town of Basalt late into the night to watch pockets of fire dance on a hillside. Just an hour after authorities said the fire had stabilized, a neighborhood was ordered to flee early Thursday.
Residents have evacuated more than 500 houses, including sprawling multimillion-dollar properties as well as mobile homes and condos of people working in the region where affordable housing is scarce.
Smoke from the fire temporarily halted flights at Aspen’s airport about 20 miles away. Authorities believe the flames started after people at a shooting range used tracer bullets, which illuminate the path of fired bullets.
Another Colorado wildfire about 205 miles southwest of Denver has destroyed more than 130 homes and forced more than 2,000 people in three counties to evacuate.
While much of the West is struggling with heat, parts of Colorado expected rain. But forecasters warned it could be heavy enough to trigger flooding in areas left bare by wildfires.
Cooler weather in Northern California helped crews gain some ground on a blaze threatening more than 1,400 buildings, but it still grew to 134 square miles, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said. The fire northwest of Sacramento has forced evacuations, but no buildings have burned.
In northern New Mexico, a wildfire closed a ranch where novelist D.H. Lawrence once sought spiritual renewal. Officials said a fire in drought-stricken Carson National Forest has scorched nearly 4 square miles since June 24 and is only partially contained.
Forest restrictions imposed last week closed the University of New Mexico’s D.H. Lawrence Ranch, which hosted the writer in the summers of 1924 and 1925 as well as Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, author Willa Cather and artist Georgia O’Keeffe after Lawrence’s 1930 death.
In Utah, scorching summer temperatures and winds quickly pushed flames through bone-dry vegetation near a popular fishing lake about two hours southeast of Salt Lake City. The 66-square-mile fire near Strawberry Reservoir has destroyed about 30 structures.
Temperatures were expected to rise to close to 100 degrees Thursday and a storm could bring erratic winds, said Donald Jaques, a spokesman for the fire.
“We have ripe conditions for extreme fire behavior,” he said. “We’re at record, historic levels of dryness for that vegetation.”
Darren Lewis’ family cabin is in the fire’s path and he fears the A-frame structure built 46 years ago by his uncle and father has burned, though he’s waiting for confirmation.
Lewis, 44, and his extended family planned to spend the Fourth of July at the property in a narrow canyon near a river but instead nervously watched social media for updates from the Salt Lake City suburb of Magna.
The cabin is among more than 200 evacuated homes in the mountain area, and the family hasn’t been able to go back since Monday, he said. It is a frequent family gathering spot and has special sentimental value because his father and uncle both died last year.
“That’s our healing place,” Lewis said.
Associated Press writers Russell Contreras in Albuquerque and Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.