GOLDEN, Colo. (AP) - Air tankers and ground crews battled a wind-whipped wildfire in the foothills west of Denver as officials warned that eastern Colorado's worst drought in nearly a decade makes that part of the state vulnerable to more burning.
Two helicopters, two aerial tankers and 200 firefighters kept the 2-square-mile blaze from growing substantially Tuesday, officials said. People were allowed to return to 17 homes evacuated Monday, but were cautioned to stay on standby in case the fire flared up.
Tankers dropped 7,000 gallons of fire retardant and the helicopters dropped 9,200 gallons of water before they were grounded when the wind picked up in the afternoon. The winds were blowing from 25 to 40 mph with sporadic gusts as high as 60 mph, the National Weather Service in Boulder said.
Firefighters were battling winds of 75 mph in some parts of the mountains, Jefferson County sheriff's spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said.
"I don't care how many firefighters they have, they can't control a fire that's raging in wind like that," said Keith Lowden, who was watching the flames with binoculars from a bedroom window in his nearby home. "That's the scariest part."
The fire has been eating through grass, brush and trees in two rugged canyons outside Golden since Sunday. Authorities said they went door-to-door through the affected area Monday to make sure everyone had left. Residents of hundreds more homes were told to be ready to leave.
Kelley said more evacuations might be necessary if the flames spread north.
The fire, which officials suspect was human-caused, was 20 to 25 percent contained by Tuesday afternoon.
No injuries have been reported and no structures have burned. Jefferson County sheriff's spokesman Mark Techmeyer said flames moved past two homes overnight but firefighters were able to save both. Firefighting costs have totaled $680,000 so far.
The sheriff's department said on its website the fire was "creeping and smoldering" earlier Tuesday but could spread if winds picked up. Bob Kleyla of the weather service said the strong winds were expected to continue at least until sunset.
Although the Colorado mountains and their ski resorts have above-average snowpack, the lower foothills and high plains east of the Rockies have had little moisture since August, said Tim Mathewson, a fire meteorologist for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which coordinates federal, state and local firefighting.
"It hasn't been just the last couple weeks. This is part of an extended dry period," he said.
Eastern Colorado hasn't been this dry since 2002 or 2003, Mathewson said, and fire danger could remain high until mid-April, when vegetation begins to green up with spring weather.
Colorado had one of its worst wildfire seasons in 2002, when fires charred more than 332,000 acres through June of that year, including 138,000 acres - or 215 square miles - burned in the Hayman Fire, the largest wildfire in state history.
The U.S. Drought Monitor says most of Colorado east of the Rocky Mountains is in a severe drought. Much of eastern Colorado, along with a broad swath of Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, were under a National Weather Service red flag warning Tuesday, meaning fire danger is high because humidity is 15 percent or less and winds are at least 25 mph.
Most of the mountains were under a winter storm watch, with 5 to 10 inches of snow expected.
Jefferson County, where the foothills fire was burning, and at least three other Colorado counties have banned open fires. Denver banned fires in its 18 mountain parks scattered across four counties. The Larimer County sheriff warned residents that fire danger was high, but the county hasn't barred fires.
A smaller, 10-acre fire southwest of Golden was contained Monday, allowing the residents of 25 evacuated homes to return. A third fire in the mountains of Jefferson County burned at least one structure before it was contained.
A wind-driven blaze scorched 622 acres west of Boulder on March 11. More than 200 homes were evacuated for a few hours, but none was damaged.