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Firefighters Struggle To Contain Colorado Fires


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

While fires don't affect us here in Aspen, other parts of Colorado face dire conditions. In Fort Collins, firefighters and the National Guard have been attempting to contain the huge High Park Fire burning for two weeks now. It's destroyed hundreds of homes and scorched tens of thousands of acres. A lightning-sparked wildfire erupted near Boulder yesterday, but the focus right now is in Colorado Springs where fire swept into the city and forced more than 30,000 people to evacuate their homes.

If you are in Colorado Springs, call and tell us what it's like where you are now: 800-989-8255. You can also email us: talk@npr.org. Andrea Chalfin is news director at member station KRCC in Colorado Springs and joins us from their studios at Radio Colorado College. And nice to have you with us.

ANDREA CHALFIN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And what do you - can see right now?

CHALFIN: Right now, it is smoky and cloudy. It's been very, very smoky today, naturally, because the fire did come into the city last night - or yesterday afternoon. So it's smoky.

CONAN: Well, we understand that the fire started on the slopes above the city, and then, stoked by winds up to 60, 65 miles an hour, it swept down the slope?

CHALFIN: Yeah, that's correct. The officials are calling this a very difficult and challenging fire and what happened is this - as one Forest Service spokeswoman put it, the fire did exactly what they didn't want it to do, which was go into a canyon called Queens Canyon. And when it came up over the ridge, it was picked up by 65-mile-an-hour winds, and that's where it came into the city and broke through a couple of containment lines.

CONAN: How much of the city?

CHALFIN: You know, it's, you know, if you divide the city into quadrants, it's probably the northwestern quadrant which was mostly evacuated. How much of that actually burned is yet to be determined.

CONAN: Because it's too difficult for people to get in there and evaluate.

CHALFIN: That's correct, that's correct. They've actually not even released, at this time, estimates of the number of homes that have burned because they just don't know right now. They're working on trying to save other locations.

CONAN: And triage is what - the expression we're hearing, not, thankfully, in terms of human lives but in terms of houses.

CHALFIN: That's correct. When one house catches on fire, then they decide to move to - try and save the next one, and that's sort of the way that they've been operating here. And there's just a lot of boots on the ground that are really working very, very hard to, you know, save portions of the city.

CONAN: And when your conditions are that dire, does anybody really know how this started?

CHALFIN: Not at this time. Nobody really knows. They consider it under investigation, but at last check, they haven't - investigators haven't been able to get into where they think the fire started to begin an investigation because it's just so hot and so big.

CONAN: And weather conditions like today, are they helping or hurting?

CHALFIN: You know, it's a little bit cloudy, which, you know, to me means it's cooler, but it's still warm. There have been a few raindrops. And I'm not going to get into the - I can't really speak to the science of it, but water has an interesting effect on fire. But it has been very, very hot and very, very dry since the fire started, which has made it extremely difficult, and very windy. The winds have been fickle, they've been gusty, and that's why we see the fire moving in so many different directions.

CONAN: Because it's unpredictable, even if you got a thunderstorm, you think, oh, well, it might douse some of the fire. On the other hand, those winds could take it who knows where.

CHALFIN: That's correct, that's correct.

CONAN: And as - are firefighters reporting progress?

CHALFIN: The fire is actually 5 percent contained right now, but what's happening is the fire is growing. So yesterday - I guess as of yesterday morning, it was about 60 to 6,500 acres. And as of this morning, it was 15,000 acres, and it's certainly grown since then.

CONAN: And some of the descriptions we're hearing seemed pretty dire - apocalyptic, catastrophic.

CHALFIN: Well, you know, it's very surreal is how I would describe it. I mean, I'm sitting there in the press briefings and ash is falling down onto the press briefings right there. And it's just very, very surreal, large plumes of smoke. And, you know, I can imagine for the people who are evacuated - thankfully for myself, I have not been - but I can imagine just what they're going through if they're seeing this, you know, coming towards them.

CONAN: Go back to that quadrant for a moment. Where is Rocky Mountain College radio in that quadrant?

CHALFIN: Colorado College is pretty much in the center, quite honestly. The - we're west - I mean, I'm sorry, we're east of I-25, Interstate 25, and the fire is still contained east of - or west of Interstate 25. I apologize, things have picked up within the past two hours, so I'm a little shaky with what's happening. But everything has stayed west of Interstate 25, and we are east of Interstate 25, and so right in the middle of the quadrant.

CONAN: Andrea Chalfin, don't worry, I can confuse east and west on a full night please, so...


CONAN: ...don't worry. Let's see if we get a caller on the conversation. If you're nearby this fire in Colorado Springs, give us a call and tell us what you're seeing. Zane(ph) is on the line with us from Castle Rock in Colorado.

ZANE: Hello, sir. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

ZANE: Yes. We're en route to help people - our friends to evacuate, pre-evacuate from the Larkspur area right next to the Air Force Academy - they got the call, or saw it on the news just a couple of hours ago.

CONAN: And what is it like where you are now?

ZANE: We can smell the smoke but - and we can see smoke, but we can't really see any fires or anything of that nature. It looks like low clouds, but they're obviously smoke instead of clouds.

CONAN: And when you say pre-evacuate, clearly help people pack up their belongings, and so they don't have to make these decisions in a panic?

ZANE: That is correct. We actually - my wife is in a U-Haul right behind me - that we obtained from a friend. We are going to help them move their prized belongings, presumably whatever they can decide to fit in that.

CONAN: Well, Zane, good luck and good luck to your friends as well.

ZANE: Thank you.

CONAN: And pre-evacuate, Andrea Chalfin, I suspect a lot of people are doing that and more are being advised to.

CHALFIN: That's right. Pre-evacuation is definitely just - it's a warning. It's, you know, be ready. Get yourself ready just in case that evacuation order comes through. As we saw yesterday, the fire moved down the slope very, very, very quickly. So the officials are really urging people take these pre-evacuation and evacuation notices quite seriously.

CONAN: And what kinds of conditions have led to this fire sweeping in into one of the state's major cities?

CHALFIN: Well, it's extreme terrain. It's - the Pike National Forest is where it started. It's extreme terrain. It's at or around 100 degree temperatures and very, very low humidity, very dry, with winds that are gusting and changing directions multiple times. I was at a press briefing and the wind changed directions at least three different times at the briefing. And when it's strong and changing directions like that, it's very unpredictable where the fire is going to move next.

CONAN: And what about the conditions of the forest before the fire?

CHALFIN: Extremely dry. We are - essentially Colorado, most of Colorado is pretty much in a drought, and it's just very, very dry, high fuel power. And so it's, you know, some officials are calling it the unprecedented and sort of a perfect storm of conditions for a very severe fire.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Kristen(ph), and Kristen is calling us from Boulder, Colorado.


CONAN: Hi, Kristen. You're on the air.

KRISTEN: Oh, hi. Well, I'm just driving south on one of our north - south roads and Boulder, and I can see the plumes of smoke. I mean, it's nothing like what is happening in Colorado Springs. It's still kind of scary. It's just looming above Boulder. It's the Flagstaff fire that I'm looking at, just from the city streets.

CONAN: And it's a interesting reminder, Kristen, the Flagstaff fire you're describing in Boulder and, of course, the other major fires burning in the state. I'm not sure, Andrea Chalfin, you've been able to keep track given your local difficulties there, but conditions that you described outside of Colorado Springs, they apply across much of the state, indeed much of the West and Southwest of the United States.

CHALFIN: Well, more than likely the dry and windy conditions do apply, probably also terrain. But again, I can't - like you said, I can't really speak a lot to the conditions that are being faced in these other fires. I mean, last count, the last I was able to note is there were eight or nine, maybe even 10 different fires going around in the state, including the High Park fire, which is significantly more acreage than what we've got down here in Colorado Springs. But the conditions here has made it the number one priority - as what we're being told - the number one priority fire in the country.

CONAN: Kristen, thanks for the call. Drive carefully, please.

KRISTEN: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Andrea Chalfin, I did want to ask, we sometimes forget that one of the necessities of radio broadcasting in this country is to provide information for people in immediate need of it. I assume you, there, are doing that. I wonder are you engaging new media in the effort as well?

CHALFIN: Oh, absolutely. I'm a one-person newsroom. And so when - I've got a few people that has really stepped up and helped get this dissemination of information out. We've been following Twitter. We've been following Facebook. We've been following other local media outlets and then trying to verify everything as they come in. So it's sort of a combination of an aggregation and a, you know, our own reporting as well, to get the information out. It's my priority to get the correct information to the people as fast as I possible can. There's just no other - nothing really else matters except for that.

CONAN: And - but that does that give you the option of asking your audience to provide information in any useful way?

CHALFIN: They do, but it is something that, you know, I have to verify. I think that there's a lot of - I have to filter through the panic, almost, because if you follow the #WaldoCanyonFire, there's a lot of people perpetuating things that either are old news or maybe aren't quite correct, or, you know, things like that that you really have to watch out for and something like this so that you're not contributing to that kind of a panic.

CONAN: And I assume there's a - as usual in these sort of circumstances, you said they haven't gotten in to do forensic checks on how the fire started. But I suspect people have their theories.

CHALFIN: People do have their theories. There have been a series of arson fires in a county west of here. The officials dealing with this particular fire are trying to downplay that. They're not saying anything about that. However, they are asking for anyone who was in the area where the fire started if they may have seen something, you know, just to give them - they have a tip line set up. So, you know, there's a lot of rumors going around, but nothing definitive has been said yet.

CONAN: Andrea Chalfin, thanks very much. And, of course, you be careful too.

CHALFIN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Andrea Chalfin, news director at member station KRCC in Colorado Springs, with us from their studios at Radio Colorado College. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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