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Wyoming now firefighting focus as hundreds flee

Valerie Blair / inciweb.org

Part of the Fontenelle Fire burns behind summer homes in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

The nation’s firefighting focus shifted on Tuesday to Wyoming, where hundreds fled over the last two days as crews battle four major wildfires. 

Incident commanders working 45 large wildfires across the U.S. did get some good news as well on Tuesday, when six firefighting C-130 aircraft were again made available.

The aircraft fleet had been grounded for a day to review procedures following the crash of a C-130 that killed four crew members in South Dakota. 

"We have four new wingmen watching over us," Brig. Gen. Tony McMillan, commander of the North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Airlift Wing, told reporters in confirming the deaths.

The two survivors were seriously injured, he added, without elaborating on their conditions.


In Wyoming, the Oil Creek Fire blew up from 9 square miles to about 31 square miles overnight and forced the evacuation of more than 400 people. 

Evacuations were issued Tuesday morning for some 300 people near the Squirrel Creek Fire southwest of Laramie, the Casper Tribune reported.

When a disaster strikes, the Red Cross breaks out a special tool to help catalog the damage and share information between the local police, fire departments and the national organization.

And the 138-square-mile Arapaho Fire, which is just 10 percent contained, started advancing quickly Tuesday after burning an undetermined number of structures. Some 300 homes were evacuated in the area.

"The real story on this fire has been the erratic winds, we've had this fire push north, push south, push east and push west at various times," incident spokesman Jim Whittington told reporters Monday.

Wyoming's forest chief noted images like the wall of flame perhaps 400-feet tall coming over a ridge at the Arapaho Fire.

"My folks out in the field with 25 to 30 years of experience are telling me they've never seen anything like this before, as far as fire behavior," Bill Crapser said. 

The Fontenelle Fire, meanwhile, continues burning through forest in Wyoming. Crews on Sunday were able to save several summer homes as the fire raced down a hillside.

The C-130 that crashed Sunday evening was fighting a 6.5-square-mile blaze in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

A fleet of firefighting air tankers, a key force in squelching the Colorado wildfires, has been grounded after one of them crashes, possibly killing all four aboard. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

The airmen who died are Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal, Maj. Joseph McCormick, Maj. Ryan David and Senior Master Sgt. Robert Cannon.

The military on Monday put the remaining seven firefighting C-130s on an "operational hold," leaving just 14 federally contracted heavy tankers in use.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Northern Command stated that six of the aircraft would be back in the air after a one-day suspension "to review flying and safety procedures." The seventh, from the same base as the C-130 that crashed, was to return home.

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The worst fire season in recent history is taking its toll with large fires burning thousands of acres in Colorado while others consume areas in Montana, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming.

President Barack Obama last month signed a bill to lease seven large tanker planes for the nation's aging aerial firefighting fleet, at a cost of $24 million, but the first planes won't be available until mid-August.

C-130 air tankers have crashed on firefighting duty before. In 2002, a privately owned civilian version of an older-model C-130 crashed in California, killing three crew members, the Associated Press noted. An investigation blamed fatigue cracks in the wings.

The crash, in part, prompted a review of the airworthiness of large U.S. air tankers and led ultimately to a greatly reduced fleet of large civilian tanker planes -- from 44 a decade ago to nine today.

Jeremy Fleischer tells the story of how his family escaped the wildfires near Colorado Springs.

Another firefighting plane, the Lockheed P2V, has had some problems in recent months. One crashed in Utah, killing the two pilots, and another one crash-landed in Nevada. 

Mike Ferris, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center, said resources remain adequate as fire managers move equipment and crews from areas with little fire activity. "But if we continue to get new (fire) starts, then things can get a little more complex," he added.

In Colorado, firefighters grappling with the two most destructive wildfires on record there reported progress.

The fires displaced tens of thousands of people and left vast swathes of forest a blackened wasteland in addition to destroying more than 600 homes.

Volunteers from the American Red Cross explain what goes into the relief effort around the wildfires at Colorado Springs.

"I don't think we've seen a fire season like this in the history of Colorado," Gov. John Hickenlooper said last week after surveying the Waldo Canyon Fire destruction west of Colorado Springs.

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Fewer than 3,000 residents remained under evacuation orders, city officials said, adding that crews were slowly restoring utility services to the affected areas.

Most of the remaining evacuees live in the Mountain Shadows subdivision, upscale homes in the bluffs on Colorado Spring's western edge where the bulk of the homes were lost.

The remains of two people were found last week in a burned-out house in Mountain Shadows, bringing to six the number of people who have died in Colorado wildfires this year. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

The 28-square-mile Waldo Canyon Fire was 70 percent contained overall, and the portion within Colorado Springs was fully contained. The fire destroyed nearly 350 homes.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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