WRAY (AP) – Evacuated residents of the small Colorado town of Eckley and surrounding areas have been allowed to return home after a wildfire on the state’s northeastern plains that injured firefighters and filled the skies with thick smoke that hid the flames from response crews and closed a highway.
Firefighter Jennifer Struckmeyer was in critical condition in the hospital’s burn center on Monday, said Gene Haffner, spokesman for the North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley.
According to the Denver Post, she suffered burns on her foot, and two of her relatives who are also firefighters were injured when a “wall of fire” overran their fire truck.
Struckmeyer’s brother-in-law, Damon Struckmeyer, and a third firefighter, Darren Stewart, were also injured, according to her mother-in-law, Beverly Struckmeyer, who is Damon Struckmeyer’s mother and Stewart’s grandmother.
Damon Struckmeyer was burned on his back, shoulder and the right side of his face. Stewart was burned around his eyes. Both men have been released from the hospital.
The town’s 300 residents were given the all-clear to return home about 9:15 p.m. Sunday. On Monday, the order for a 220-square-mile area around the town was lifted near the border of Kansas and Nebraska.
As many as 1,000 residents may have been forced from their homes and were staying with friends and relatives, said Yuma County Sheriff Chad Day.
He took an aerial survey of the damage on Monday and said at least two farmsteads were destroyed and an undetermined number of farm animals had been killed.
“There are a lot of fences that were cut or burned down, so we still have a lot of animals just roaming around,” Day said. “You have neighbors helping each other out, but it’s going to take a while before they can go out and count them.”
Day said firefighters told him the firefighters were injured when their quick-response truck got stuck in the sand.
More than a dozen area fire departments fought the fire, which started at about 1:15 p.m. Sunday south of Yuma and quickly spread toward Eckley, prompting the evacuation.
The wind-fueled grass fire destroyed at least two homes and threatened several others before it was reported 90 percent contained late Sunday night, after scorching parts of an 84-square-mile area.
The wall of smoke and dust was so bad after the fire broke out that some firefighters couldn’t see the fire and authorities had to temporarily close a section of U.S. Highway 34 east of Yuma.
A photo from the Yuma Pioneer shows the sky-high plume rising from the plains.
“The smoke is just thick and rising way up into the air,” Mike McCaleb, emergency manager in Washington County, said earlier Sunday. With high winds also kicking up dirt, “visibility was nothing.”
Chris Foltz, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Goodland, Kan., said the fire was fueled by sustained winds of 30 to 35 mph, and a gust of 62 mph was measured near Yuma at about 4:35 p.m. He said the small town of Kirk just south of the fire experienced a wind gust of 68 mph soon after the blaze started.
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Also Sunday, an 80-acre fire east of Colorado Springs damaged three buildings, but no injuries were reported. Edison Fire Chief Mark Anderson said the fire was caused by a downed power line.
The fires follow a week of warm, dry weather that raised the fire danger across eastern Colorado. Smaller fires were sparked along the Front Range, one by a ditch burn that got out of control and another by fireworks.
Denver broke a weather record by hitting 76 degrees on Saturday.
– By Steven K. Paulson, AP Writer
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