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6,500 families might have to evacuate in deadly Colo. wildfire

Updated at 7 p.m. ET: CONIFER, Colo. -- The bodies of a husband and wife were found at one of 23 homes destroyed or damaged by a wildfire that has forced hundreds to flee the mountainous area southwest of Denver, authorities said Tuesday. A third person was missing from the same area where the man and woman were found.

The body of a woman, later identified as Linda Lucas, 76, was found outside the burned home on Monday evening and a man's body, identified as Sam Lucas, 77, was found inside on Tuesday, said Daniel Hatlestad of the Jefferson County Incident Management Team.

Authorities do not yet know whether the deaths were caused by the fire, which has grown to about 7 square miles and was "not contained in the slightest."

The fast-moving wildfire was reported at midday Monday and spread quickly amid dry, windy weather.

The fire was burning several miles and mountain ridges west of Denver's tightly populated southwestern suburbs, which were not under threat.

The area of pines and grassland is mountainous and sparsely populated, dotted with hamlets and the occasional expensive home. It is about 25 miles southwest of Denver at an altitude that ranges from 7,000 to 8,200 feet.

About 900 homes have been evacuated and the residents of another 6,500 houses were warned Tuesday to be ready to evacuate  because of a spot fire that was sparked outside the main fire.

Jefferson County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Jacki Kelley had said earlier that the wildfire may have been a controlled burn from last week that sprang back to life because of strong wind gusts.

Ryan Lockwood, a spokesman for the Colorado State Forest Service, said his agency conducted the controlled burn on Thursday on land belonging to the Denver Water Board as part of an ongoing attempt to reduce fire danger. Such burns are common in the West to thin out vegetation in the hopes of preventing fires.

"This has been going on for the past year," Lockwood said.

Wind gusts that reached near 90 mph fanned the flames on Monday, preventing air crews from spraying retardant and keeping firefighters mostly on the defensive. With winds lighter Tuesday, firefighters were attacking the fire on the ground and dropping slurry from an air tanker.

By midday Tuesday, officials were urging patience in a meeting with about 60 frustrated evacuees gathered at Conifer High School. The evacuated residents groaned when Hatlestad of the Jefferson County Incident Management Team announced that the fire was 0 percent contained and expected to spread to the northeast with the afternoon winds.

Hatlestad repeatedly told residents asking about their home streets, "I can't tell you where the fire will go." Hatlestad had no estimate when they could get home or when homeowners would find out whether their homes have been spared.

Crews from Arizona, Utah and South Dakota have been called in for support, with the blaze churning through rugged terrain rich with dry brush. Roughly 450 firefighters are expected on the scene.

Air support arrived Tuesday and planes were able to make slurry drops on the blaze, NBC station KUSA reported. Air support consisted of a SEAT and a heavy P2V airplane dropping fire retardant over the fire. Two National Guard helicopters are enroute from Buckley Air Force Base to start dropping water also, KUSA said.

There were no other reports of injuries, but a sheriff's deputy who was alerting residents to leave was trapped in his patrol car after he inadvertently drove into a ditch in the thick smoke, Kelley said. He summoned help by radio.

One evacuee left behind a Corvette and a small airplane to escape the flames. Cindi Sjaardema said it was the first time in 34 years that she has had to flee the area.

"We decided, 'Let's move now,' thinking we'd make two trips. But when we left, we passed a checkpoint and they said we couldn't go back," she said. "My husband argued with the guy, (and) said, 'I left a Corvette back there, I'm going back.' But I said, 'No way. It's insured. It's just stuff.' We got out, and thank God."

Single-digit humidity values, winds blowing at 40 to 50 miles per hour and a lack of snowfall during the past month put most of eastern Colorado under a red-flag warning for high fire danger, the National Weather Service said.

The high winds also had prompted flight delays at Denver International Airport on Monday. Smoke from the wildfire poured into Denver on Tuesday.

NBC News, KUSA, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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