Almost two dozen hikers were airlifted to safety after a wildfire broke out in a recreation area in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, the latest in a series of fires raging for months across Colorado and the parched West.
The Ice Fire in San Juan County began burning Monday afternoon in the South Mineral Creek area near a trail head in the San Juan National Forest, the county Office of Emergency Management said in a statement. The Sheriff's Department evacuated campers and hikers from the area, including 23 hikers and three dogs flown out via helicopters.
Greg Anson told the Durango Herald he was on a day hike to Ice Lake when he noticed a “massive” plume of smoke. He and the other hikers grouped together to decide whether to try to find a way to hike out of the area or wait for help. In the end, four helicopters swept in and saved the day.
“Some people didn’t think they could make it," he said. “It was crazy. I’ve never been through anything like that.”
A few hours later the blaze had burned 320 acres as the Forest Service deployed helicopters, tanker planes and a "hot shot" squad in an effort to contain the flames. The squads generally include 20-22 firefighters sent to combat the most challenging sections of the nation's high-priority fires.
Musician Anthony D'Amato, who lives in the area, tweeted support for firefighters.
"The area around Mineral Creek is so beautiful, and to see it in flames like this just destroys me," D'Amato said. "Absolutely devastating watching the Ice Fire spread in the @SanJuanNF."
Smoke from the fire was visible for miles around, and it hung like thick smog over the county seat of Silverton. An air quality advisory was issued for the entire county.
"Smoke will move toward areas immediately downwind to the east and southeast of the fire," the state Health Department warned. "This will result in continued periods of moderate to heavy smoke for the Silverton area through Wednesday morning."
No evacuations had been ordered in the sparsely populated county, but emergency management officials urged people in the Silverton area to "familiarize themselves with a ready, set, go evacuation plan." Officials also warned people driving in the area not stop to watch aircraft and firefighting activities "as this poses a hazard for fellow travelers."
Elsewhere in the state, the Cameron Peak Fire has burned more than 320 square miles in Larimer County since August and is the largest fire in Colorado history. The fire in the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests was listed as 51% contained on Tuesday. And thousands of people have fled the CalWood fire that authorities say has destroyed an undetermined number of homes.
Firefighters and support personnel across the West were battling at least 58 major fires in nine Western states on Tuesday, the National Interagency Fire Center said. Thus far this year, 46,148 wildfires have burned more than 13,000 square miles, almost 3,300 square miles above the 10-year average.
The weather forecast for much of the West wasn't helpful.
"Warm and dry conditions will continue over much of the Southwest, Great Basin and California," the agency said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colorado wildfires: Ice Fire forces airlift of 23 hikers