The deadly crash of a military cargo plane fighting a South Dakota wildfire forced officials to ground seven other Air Force air tankers, removing critical firefighting aircraft from the skies during one of the busiest and most destructive wildfire seasons ever to hit the West.
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Meanwhile, firefighters grappling with the two most destructive wildfires on record in Colorado reported progress, but steeled themselves for a long season in what has already been a dangerously active fire year in the western United States.
The fires, which left a haze of smoke over the state's urban corridors, have displaced tens of thousands of people and left vast swathes of forest a blackened wasteland in addition to charring more than 600 homes.
"I don't think we've seen a fire season like this in the history of Colorado," Governor John Hickenlooper said last week after surveying the destruction wrought by the Waldo Canyon Fire west of Colorado Springs.
The C-130 from an Air National Guard wing based in Charlotte, N.C., was carrying a crew of six and fighting a 6.5-square-mile blaze in the Black Hills of South Dakota when it crashed Sunday, killing at least one crew member and injuring others.
Military plane crashes while battling South Dakota wildfire
President Barack Obama offered thoughts and prayers to the crew and their families. "The men and women battling these terrible fires across the West put their lives on the line every day for their fellow Americans," he said in a statement.
The crash cut the number of large air tankers fighting this summer's outbreak of wildfires by one-third.
The military put the remaining seven C-130s on an "operational hold," keeping them on the ground indefinitely. That left 14 federally contracted heavy tankers in use until investigators gain a better understanding of what caused the crash.
"You've basically lopped off eight air tankers immediately from your inventory, and that's going to make it tougher to fight wildfires," said Mike Archer, who distributes a daily newsletter of wildfire news.
"And who knows how long the planes will be down?" he said, adding that investigators will take time to make their conclusions.
Two found dead
Mike Ferris, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center, said at this stage there are adequate resources to combat the wildfires as fire managers move equipment and manpower from areas with little fire activity to states that need them.
Waldo Canyon Fire, 55 percent contained, still burns hot
"But if we continue to get new (fire) starts, then things can get a little more complex," he said.
Ferris said it was too early to tell what effect the grounding of the C-130 air tanker fleet may have.
At the Waldo Canyon Fire, fewer than 3,000 residents who were forced to flee their homes remained under evacuation orders, city officials said, adding that crews were slowly restoring utility services to the affected areas.
When 65 mile-an-hour winds blew flames across several ridgelines and threatened populated neighborhoods last Tuesday, more than 30,000 people were ordered to flee the inferno.
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Most of the remaining displaced residents live in the Mountain Shadows subdivision, a tightly clustered neighborhood of upscale homes in the bluffs on Colorado Spring's western edge where the bulk of property losses occurred.
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.
Among the major fires burning in the West Monday:
Colorado: The 28-square-mile Waldo Canyon Fire was 70 percent contained. The fire northwest of Colorado Springs killed two people and destroyed nearly 350 homes.
Utah: Two new wildfires broke out on National Forest lands, one caused by target shooting, authorities said. In southern Utah, evacuations were ordered as the 500-acre Shingle fire threatened about 100 cabins.
Montana: The 290-square mile Ash Creek fire jumped a state highway early Monday, triggering evacuations.
Wyoming: Three large forest fires continued to spread as crews faced erratic winds and explosive fuel conditions.