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Stunned residents return after deadly fire in SE Colorado

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Associated Press Writer

ORDWAY, Colo. (AP) -- Oscar Martinez says the handful of bones he found behind the black and smoking ruins of his home were the remains of his Shar-Pei, Kika.

"It's a lot to absorb right now," a stunned Martinez said Wednesday, a day after wind pushed a wildfire across the southeast Colorado plains, killing two firefighters and destroying eight homes on the fringes of Ordway, a remote farm town of 1,200 people.

Martinez clutched the bones, gazing about, speechless.

The fire about 120 miles southeast of Denver blackened 14 square miles of grassland and forced the town's residents to flee to neighboring communities.

It was 90 percent contained Wednesday, but a 15-square-mile blaze raged nearly out of control on a remote part of the Army's Fort Carson after killing a firefighting pilot. And in the mountains of western Colorado near Carbondale, a third fire burned about 1 1/2 square miles, damaged two buildings and slightly injured a fisherman.

Outside Ordway, utility poles were destroyed, power lines and electrical transformers dangled precariously and grain storage facilities were blackened.

Residents returning Wednesday said winds gusting up to 50 mph blew the fire on top of them almost before they knew it.

"It was just like a bolt of lightning," said 48-year-old Diana Montanez.

"How can I describe it? It's really heartbreaking," said her brother, Arthur Montanez Jr., 50, who lost his house and two pet dogs. "We worked our butts off to get this place. We spent our last six years to make this our home. And just in a short time for it to be like this, it's shocking."

Volunteer firefighters John Schwartz and Terry Devore died when the truck they were riding in plunged into a ravine. The bridge they were on, damaged by the fire, either collapsed beneath the truck's weight or had fallen earlier. Colleagues speculated it was too smoky for the men to see.

"I know they were rushing here to help. They were that type of guys," said Alfonso Rios, 52, a volunteer emergency medical technician who responded to the accident.

Schwartz, 38, is survived by three children. Devore, 30, is survived by a wife and four children. Both were corrections officers at a state prison outside Ordway.

The fire at Fort Carson, about 60 miles south of Denver, was 10 percent contained late Wednesday. Up to 800 people who had been evacuated were allowed to go home.

Pilot Gert Marais, 42, had just dumped a load of fire-retardant slurry on the flames when his single-engine plane crashed, killing him.

Marais, of Fort Benton, Mont., worked for a Sterling, Colo., company that supplies aerial firefighting services to the Colorado State Forest Service. The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating the crash.

The fire near Carbondale was 70 percent contained. Authorities could not say how many people had been evacuated, but most were allowed to return Wednesday.

Investigators had not determined the cause of any of the three fires, which erupted amid high winds and dry conditions Tuesday.

Associated Press Writers George Merritt at Fort Carson and Dan Elliott, Don Mitchell, Steven K. Paulson and Catherine Tsai in Denver contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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