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County Commissioner Candidates Interview

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Questions to the candidates: 
1. For the readers, can you explain what duties a County Commissioner has and what their main purpose is in local government?

2. If you were to be elected, what are your three (3) biggest priorities for Pueblo County next year?

3. In terms of economic development Pueblo only seems to have two approaches, PEDCO which focuses solely on attracting large businesses here and the Small Business Administration which helps small businesses when they start out. But Pueblo doesn’t focus on entrepreneurship and venture capitalism — two areas needed for sustained local growth. Why doesn’t have more and what can be done to generate an entrepreneurship culture in the county.

4. In the primary debates earlier this year, there was a lot of talk about the Southern Delivery System, as a commissioner, how would you approach the future of SDS with regards to protecting Pueblo water, the Fountain Creek and Colorado Springs?

5. One of the controversies two former county commissioners faced was the lack of time spent as commissioner as reported by KOAA. How many hours will you work as county commissioner and how will you spend your time?

6. Pueblo, for better or worse, has become a place where companies can find a workforce to work for cheap but there doesn’t seem to be a diversification of that workforce — As County Commissioner what would you do to help diversify the Pueblo job market?

ANSWERS: Centa

1. County Commissioners are the primary policy making body of county government.  They differ from city councils in that they are also responsible for the administrative duties of government.  One of their primary duties is the creation and approval of an annual budget.  Commissioners also approve the budgets for all other county elected officials’ departments.  They exercise only those powers specifically outlined in statute or in the state constitution.  This includes law enforcement, supporting the courts through the DA and the jail through the sheriff.  Also, among other programs, it includes social services, health services, roads and bridges, county parks and land use.

2. 1) Bring leadership into the commissioner offices to ensure a smooth transition of county government. Three new commissioners start this January; I bring 40 years of experience in administration and economic development and a thorough understanding of government operations.  2) Ensuring that budgeted programs and county spending is appropriate and prioritizing the elimination of wasteful spending. 3) Evaluating county departments and programs to ensure they are promoting an environment where business can thrive and new companies desire to locate.

3. It is not correct that Pueblo has only two economic development approaches nor that PEDCO only focuses on large businesses.  Solar Roast is a prime example of how an existing small company was significantly helped by PEDCO when they decided to expand their distribution operation.  Also, PEDCO’s Business and Technology Center (BTC) functions as a small business incubator and is nearly at capacity.  Located within the BTC is the Southern Colorado Small Business Development Center, which works hand in glove with PEDCO to encourage entrepreneurship.  While the entrepreneurship culture is doing fairly well in Pueblo what is missing is a local venture capital group.  This is one area I will strive to develop and I bring experience in with my role as commissioner.

4. Colorado Springs Utilities is contractually bound to comply with the conditions of Pueblo County’s 1041 permit.  Those conditions are not about protecting Pueblo’s water, but about detaining storm water generated in Colorado Springs thus protecting Fountain Creek.  However, one of my priorities is to ensure all Pueblo’s water ways are unpolluted by enforcing 1041 permits and land use standards.  I will continue to be involved in the Fountain Creek Commission for the protection of the entire Fountain Creek basin.

5. I have a very strong work ethic developed at an early age while working on the family dairy farm.  In all my years of public service, I cannot recall calling in sick even one time.  For the past decade I have routinely worked 50+ hour weeks.  The last time I played golf was over a year ago.  My time as an elected official will be divided between administrative responsibilities and interaction with constituents.  Also, I own no business that would compete for my time, and I will remain focused on Pueblo County.

6. The Pueblo workforce has struggled to have a high number of individuals qualified for the higher technology sector jobs.  Advanced opportunities for these individuals are limited due to their inability to compete in the broader workplace.  Clearly, it is important to continue and enhance workplace training.  I strongly believe working families should have the opportunity to pursue advanced education.   As a County Commissioner I will push for enhanced programs through the Pueblo Workforce Center and the Pueblo Community College.  Additionally, we must continue to promote the value of the Pueblo workforce to prospective employers.

 

Answers: Hart

1. A County Commissioner basically acts as an elected director on a board of directors (the Board of County Commissioners) that is charged by statute with governing and managing the affairs of the County government. The County Commission exercises all 3 branches of government: Executive: it is changed with the administration and management of the all of the central aspects of the County Government; Legislative: it has the power to adopt policies, rules and regulations; and Judicial: it judges facts and applies the policies, rules and regulations it has adopted, as well as statutory requirements, when it performs such functions as conducting land use hearings or liquor licensing hearings. The primary charge of a County Commission is to provide for the financial needs of the County Government first by setting and adopting the budget for the County, all of its offices and departments; then by levying the taxes and fees required for the revenue side of the budget; and finally by authorizing the expenditures under that budget. The Commission pays for all of the personnel of the County’s offices and departments and provides for the management of the departmental personnel. And it is charged with such critical services and activities of our community such as economic development, development of lands outside of the City boundaries, maintenance of the road and bridge systems in the unincorporated areas of the County, and management of the social and human services needs of our community, to name just a few. The County Commission represents all of the citizens in our community whether they live within or outside of the cities, towns, and metropolitan districts.

 

2. Open Government: I believe that the citizens deserve a completely open, transparent, and ethical government. This allows the citizens to always know what their government is doing for them and, if they chose, to fully participate in the major decision that their government makes. If elected I will do all I can to make the county government transparent and open to citizen participation by posting all meetings scheduled, allow easy access to the agendas and any documents being considered. I will also do all I can do to encourage citizen participation in the development of critical issues.

 

Economic Development: Our community continues to suffer under the weight of 11% unemployment. One of the most critical challenges for any elected official in our community these days is to do all we can to bring as many high quality jobs to our County as we possibly can. I have had experience working on numerous economic development projects in my 32 years working for the County and I will use all of my knowledge and abilities to ramp up that process. In addition, I believe that our economic development systems need to be evolved and enhanced by not only fighting to land new businesses who primary jobs as we current do, but also to talk to and find out what our current businesses, whether large, medium or small, need from their government to survive, expand and thrive and provide for those needs to the greatest extent possible. We need a community-wide economic development plan that complements what we currently provide within the City through PEDCO and also provide those economic services throughout the rest of the County, including in Pueblo West, Colorado City, Rye, St. Charles Mesa, Boone and Avondale. I also believe that our agricultural economy is critical to our economic success as a community and therefore we need to work closely with our farmers and ranchers to determine their needs and provide for them to the best of our ability. And finally, I believe Pueblo is blessed to be centrally located within Southeastern Colorado and has begun to develop as the economic hub for the region. If elected I would work with our sister counties and communities in our region to enhance and expand our role as that hub.

 

Protect Our Resources and Promote Our Quality of Life: Our water, our clean air, our undisturbed lands, these are the greatest resources we have inherited. I believe that no community wishing to thrive can do so without also preserving and protecting these natural resources. This not only enhances the quality of life of our citizens, it is also a bedrock critical element of our economic development efforts. I have a strong record in this area and I will apply all of my experience, energy and skills to continue. I will also work to redirect more County resources to our parks, our trails, our arts, and help enhance our shopping, restaurant and entertainment opportunities. This not only improves our lives, it also is what attracts others to our community.

 

3. As I answered to the previous question, I feel that our current economic development model needs to be expanded and enhanced. Our current model has worked well for our community but in order to remain competitive in this fast moving world market that we are in today, we must evolve our economic development efforts to meet those needs of today and the future. For our local economy to be healthy it must grow and be sustainable. I would like to tap into the knowledge base of our business owners, our workforce, and our citizens to determine what we need to do to preserve and protect our current business interests as well as what we need to do generate an entrepreneurship culture, as you have indicated, to expand and grow our local economy. I believe that we need to ask the folks who work in this area daily, the business owners, the work force, and the citizens; develop a community-wide plan; and then use the combined resources of the community, both public and private, and to implement that plan.

 

4. I believe that the SDS 1041 permit needs to be called back to the table and Colorado Springs needs to prove to this community that it can meet all of the precedent conditions of that permit. That would include proof that Colorado Springs has the will and has provided adequate financing for the control of their storm water runoff requirements. I would also review the record of Colorado Springs Utilities in their dealings with our landowners who are affected by the SDS project to make sure CSU meets all of the requirements of the 1041 permit in fair dealing with our citizens. If they cannot meet these conditions then the permit needs to be revoked and then only reestablished once those conditions are proven to be met. This will protect, clean up, and improve the water and waterways of the Fountain Creek watershed and promote the ideals I have helped to work toward on the Citizens Advisory Group of the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control, and Greenway District. Pueblo County issued that permit to Colorado Springs for its SDS project and they need to be held accountable to all the protection requirements contained in that permit.

 

5. A County Commissioner is elected to serve the citizens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I have always felt that the best way to successfully serve the citizens of this community is to to roll up my sleeves and do whatever work is needed and devote whatever time is required. I believe that effort takes more time than the standard 40 hour work week. My current work schedule is rarely less than 40 hours per week and I believe our citizens deserve no less. I believe that there is plenty of work to do and a full time schedule plus is what is required of an active elected county official and, if elected, that is what I will provide. I have always prided myself in giving the extra effort, going the extra mile, and that is the work ethic I would bring to this job as well.

 

6. As I discussed above, I believe our economic development model needs to be expanded, enhanced and evolved in order for us to be successful in this increasingly competitive world market. We need to develop as a community a communitywide economic development plan. Our plan should identify the types of businesses we feel are best suited for and desired for our community, from manufacturing to services. Our efforts to attract the businesses and jobs consistent with that plan should include efforts to attract the full strata of jobs, from traditional blue collar to white collar jobs, technical and professional jobs, from minimum wage to high quality high paying jobs. We have all engaged in discussions about how sad it is to see our children become educated only to watch them have to leave town to obtain quality jobs. I would like to stop that and work to attract the quality businesses and jobs that would allow our children to stay in Pueblo and raise their families here without sacrificing their careers. I would like to help set up a plan to educate the workforce to meet the needs of our current businesses. We need to develop, expand, and implement to the extent necessary the tools required for our economic development plan including tax incentive packages, enterprise zone amenities, and business and labor friendly government attitude and services. Then work we need to work cooperatively between the County, PEDCO, the City, and our metropolitan districts to land that broad spectrum of jobs. And, as a County Commissioner I don’t believe you can set back and wait for the businesses to come to us. As a County Commissioner I would get up, get out and work with PEDCO and our sister governments, businesses and civic and social organizations, and aggressively work with prospective businesses to win them over for our community. We need to develop a community wide economic development plan that identifies our strongpoints and assets and the types of business we would like to attract. But then we need to be flexible enough to recognize, work with and land businesses that might want to come here.  We also need to work with our existing business, big and small, to identify their needs to preserve, protect, and explore opportunities to grow and expand.

 

Answers: McFadyen

1.  Duties of a County Commissioner

The Pueblo County Commissioners are an extension of  Colorado State Government. Most of the  duties and responsibilities of Pueblo County Commissioners are set in Colorado State Statues and the Colorado State Constitution.  The Pueblo County Commissioner Duties include but are not limited to:

Setting, balancing and administering the annual  Pueblo County budget.

State Human Services through Pueblo County Social Services.

An extension of the State Legal System through the Court System and the District Attorney’s Office.

Law enforcement services including the Pueblo County Jail.

Planning and Zoning in unincorporated areas of Pueblo County.

Building and maintaining Pueblo County roads and bridges.

 

2.  Priorities

Work collaboratively to create investment in the local economy. Assist entrepreneurs and businesses to adjust to the changing business climate. Increase local confidence in the marketplace and stimulate livable wage jobs.

Transparency. Commissioner meetings broadcast live on the internet. Meetings to be recorded/archived and available on the County website with a goal to have meetings broadcast on tv like Pueblo City Council.

Thoroughly examine the Pueblo County budget with an immediate need to responsibly balance the budget. Long term goal is to reduce Pueblo County’s debt and increase Pueblo County’s financial health.

Utilize the power of Pueblo County to assist individuals or businesses navigating barriers to success. Work to help resolve issues involving the government (Local/State/Federal) or other hurdles impeding problem solving. The Commission should be an open door to advocate on behalf of the People.

Veteran and Veteran Family Services.

Water and Agriculture.

 

3.  Economic Development

Pueblo County needs to work to stabilize and better our local economy.

Eliminate tax incentives when a business’ success is based solely on tax incentives.  Once the tax incentives expire, the business leaves. Instead, evaluate the business model for success beyond the length of the tax incentives. Ensure jobs are livable wage jobs.

Invest and prioritize businesses already in business today so they can be here tomorrow.

If a company receives tax incentives, the same company needs to be held accountable for the requirements of the tax incentives.

The Pueblo County Commission should work with the State to maintain Enterprise Zones in Pueblo County.  In turn we should hold companies accountable for the requirements of the tax incentives to eliminate fraud and waste.

Work with entrepreneurs to secure capital and execute a successful business model.  In addition, help entrepreneurs acquire affordable health insurance.

Better our infrastructure by reinvesting in roads, schools, arts, and higher education. Doing so will allow Pueblo County to capitalize on an increased quality of life attracting and then maintaining businesses locally.

 

4.    SDS, Pueblo Water, Fountain Creek, and Colorado Springs.

The City of Colorado Springs/Colorado Springs Utilities has over a $500 million worth of backlogged capital projects on its own system.  Pueblo County issued the 1041 permit for the SDS (Southern Delivery System) to Colorado Springs on several conditions.  One of the conditions was additional investment in stormwater improvements.  Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach announced earlier this year that Colorado Springs would move $7 million into stormwater improvements.  This amounts to approximately 1.4% of the backlogged projects.  This certainly doesn’t represent a true commitment to improving stormwater issues.  It is time we genuinely expect action by Colorado Springs Utilities to correct stormwater and water quality issues.  We must hold Colorado Springs/Colorado Springs Utilities accountable and responsible.  The only way to force Colorado Springs into action may be for the Pueblo County Commissioners  to reopen the 1041 permit process.

 

5.  Full Time Job

I will work full-time plus as a Pueblo County Commissioner.

The People of Pueblo County Can Expect:

Quality service delivery for the People of Pueblo County.

Open door policy taking input from the People and Pueblo County Employees on Pueblo County performance and suggestions for cost savings.

Utilizing  the power of Pueblo County to assist individuals or businesses navigating barriers to success. Work to help resolve issues involving the government (Local/State/Federal) or other hurdles impeding problem solving. The Commission should be an open door to advocate on behalf of the People.

Smooth transition and continuity of service regardless of elections.

Owning the responsibility for budget decisions.

The ability to thoroughly and thoughtfully explain decisions and votes made as a Pueblo County Commissioner.

Work for the WHOLE County.  Work for all of the People regardless of party registration.

 

6.  Diversify the Workforce

The key to a diversified workforce is investing and maintaining quality K-12 education systems and post high school education systems including higher education and quality job training programs.  Higher education and quality job training programs need to be affordable and accessible. Our goals should focus on a completive and highly educated/trained workforce for our children and grandchildren.  As a Pueblo County Commissioner, I will work with our schools, its elected officials and organizations invested in the success of our youth and young adults to reach our goals.

As a Commissioner, I am dedicated to educating our Colorado State elected officials on the value of continued investment in Southern Colorado higher education colleges, universities and job training programs.  After all, we pay Colorado taxes and should expect our fair share returned to Southern Colorado.  Additionally, I commit to being a voice to our US Senators and Congressmen working to ensure accessibility of Pell grants ,student loans and other funding mechanisms for those seeking higher education and job training.

Our community will attract and maintain quality jobs and a diversified workforce if we set goals to better our overall infrastructure. When we invest in schools, roads, arts, and higher education combined we increase our quality of life. This will happen with dedicated strategic planning and implementation.

 

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Almost ‘All Aboard’ – Passenger train service may return to Front Range within the next 12 years

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Three Southern Colorado historic passenger train stations – in Walsenburg, Pueblo and Colorado Springs – have not been used for their intended purpose in decades, and it could take at least another decade or longer, if at all, before another passenger boards a train at any of them.

Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, who is also chairman of the state’s Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, says his commission has received the $8.7 million in funding it had requested last December from the state General Assembly as part of Senate Bill 1, a transportation bill, on May 9 – the last day of the 2018 legislative session. Pace says the funding will be used by his commission to start the first phase of a five-phase plan to bring south-north passenger rail service between Trinidad and Fort Collins in the next 10 to 12 years.

Pace says although he hopes that the existing historic train depots along the route (in Walsenburg, Pueblo and Colorado Springs) are used for the project, the other members of the passenger rail commission, and a study to be done in regard to station locations – among other things – as part of the first phase, might suggest otherwise. The first phase should be completed about 2½ years from now.

Pace explains that the existing three train stations, two of which were built well over a century ago, were located in downtown areas and were designed to accommodate pedestrians. He says the train stops for the Front Range Passenger Rail have to account for the fact the many of the potential passengers will get to the station by car. He adds things like track alignment and rights of way are among the variables that will determine whether the historic passenger train depots are used.

In addition to determining train station locations, the first phase of the Front Range Passenger Rail project includes defining mobility needs, preferred alignment and routes, service operating characteristics, including time of service, speeds, and rail spacing. Phase I also will include public and stakeholder hearings.

A governing authority will be formed during the second phase to be implemented by November 2020. That phase is expected to cost $500,000. Phase III includes full environmental clearance from the federal government, which is expected to cost between $150 million to $300 million. Construction will start as part of the fourth stage with a cost to be determined. Phase V includes ribbon cutting and a grand opening to commence ridership.

Walsenburg

The city of Walsenburg owns the town’s former passenger train depot located in the city’s downtown between Main and Russell streets. Walsenburg City Clerk Wanda Britt says, in its heyday, 11 passenger trains passed through the depot daily. Sometime after passenger train service stopped, the depot had been home to the now defunct Huerfano County Chamber of Commerce. Then, Britt says, the building was refurbished by the city, keeping the depot’s old façade, and the city now rents it out to Huerfano County government as office space and a tourist center.

Walsenburg town historian Carolyn Newman says the depot was built  in 1926 by two competing passenger railroad companies serving Walsenburg at the time – the Denver and Rio Grande Western, and the Colorado and Southern. Although she can’t say when passenger service ended, Newman says when she relocated to Walsenburg from England in 1957, she did so aboard a passenger train. A Nov. 4, 2010 report on the World Journal website, which serves Huerfano, Las Animas and Colfax counties, says the last passenger train left Union Depot in 1966. Newman adds that Walsenburg has two sets of tracks running through the town, which were mostly used to transport coal mined in Las Animas and Huerfano counties. The tracks go east and west through town but one later curves to go north and south, she says.

Walsenburg Mayor James Eccher says the city has been in the talking stages with the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission through its participation in the South Central Council of Governments (SCCOG) out of Trinidad, but nothing more. Trinidad Mayor Phil Rico serves on the Passenger Rail Commission and represents SCCOG. Incidentally, Trinidad has a functioning modern passenger train depot served by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Eccher says Walsenburg’s Union Depot can easily be repurposed back to a passenger train stop, saying the building would have enough space – even its old ticket booth is intact. The mayor says one obstacle that might be an issue is that the parallel tracks that run through the city are owned by two different railroads – Union Pacific and BNSF. Although the mayor says he would welcome a passenger train stop in Walsenburg, he is skeptical because another passenger train route through the city going west and east from La Junta proposed by Amtrak has not materialized.

Pueblo

Built in 1889, the Pueblo Union Depot at 132 W. B St. is now owned by the Koncilja family, who seems proud of the 130-year-old facility.

“We believe the Pueblo Union Depot is the crown gem of the Union Avenue Historic District,” Joseph Koncilja says. “Our ownership of this historic property is more that of stewardship than ownership. Almost every family in the city of Pueblo has a connection with the Pueblo Union Depot either with their immigrant families arriving there at the turn of the century or through fond memories of leaving for military service during the World War I and World War II, and even Vietnam.”

Koncilja also relates the depot’s unique history. The depot came about, he says, as a result of a compromise between five feuding railroads involved in “contentious competition.” At one point a decade before the depot was built, Koncilja continues, during the Royal Gorge Railroad War, Old West legend Bat Masterson, to settle things down, took over a roundhouse near the depot site using a cannon that he took from the Pueblo armory. Masterson and other gunfighters, among them Doc Holliday, were hired in 1879 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, which was competing against the Denver and Rio Grande. The dispute ended, without a shot fired, on June 10, 1879, when a federal court ruled in favor of Denver and Rio Grande.

Getting back to after the Union Depot was built: “Over 40 trains a day passed through the depot in its heyday,” Koncilja says. “We estimate conservatively that over 50 million people passed through the depot until the end of passenger service in 1974.”

Koncilja says the depot is now used “primarily as a mixed-use development consisting of event catering, office space and luxury apartments on the third floor.” He calls it an anchor for the Union Avenue District and says it is also close to the Southeastern Colorado Heritage Center and Museum, which has one of the largest collections of historic artifacts in the city.

Koncilja seems optimistic about repurposing the old depot as a passenger train station. And Commissioner Pace says he has spoken with the Konciljas informally about possibly using the depot as part of the Front Range Passenger Rail project.

“We hope that the Depot will be able to participate in the return of passenger service in conjunction with Amtrak’s expansion from La Junta to Pueblo,” Koncilja says, “And later be incorporated into the Front Range rail corridor from Fort Collins to Trinidad. Other than track upgrades and some necessary switches, the depot is capable of servicing passenger cars at present.”

Colorado Springs

A passenger train made its last stop at the Colorado Springs’ Old Depot on April 30, 1971, says Spencer Kellogg, a volunteer with the Colorado Train Museum in Denver. The station was owned by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.

The Ochs family is credited with saving the Old Train Depot at 10 S. Sierra Madre St. (behind the Antlers Hilton Hotel and right under the bridge at Colorado Ave.) from demolition in the 1970s, according to a Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper article published on Oct. 19, 2011. The Gazette story was about the closing of Giuseppe’s Old Depot Restaurant after 38 years as a tenant at the depot. The article states that the site of the depot has been home to a train depot since the Colorado Springs founder William Jackson Palmer laid the tracks in 1872, with the current structure opening in 1887. The article further states that the city of Colorado Springs had wanted to buy the depot to use as a transit station, but that never came to be.

The El Paso County assessor’s office currently lists the depot’s owner as ODP LLC, which is a company formed by the Ochs family.  

Stauffer and Sons Construction was another former tenant at the Old Depot Square, which consists of the historic depot and a south building that was added sometime after the last passenger train stopped there and the building was turned into a shopping center.

Ron Stauffer posted a promotional article on the Stauffer & Sons’ website on April 4, 2014, which says that the current depot has plenty of free parking, which is unheard of in downtown Colorado Springs.

“The building we share has quite a history,” Stauffer’s story states, “it … brought many visitors to Colorado Springs from places like Utah and New Mexico (including President Harry Truman, who stopped here in 1948 for a whistle-stop tour during his election campaign!).”

Pulp was unsuccessful in attempts to reach the Ochs family by phone and email in regard to what the Old Depot Square is being used for now and what accommodations, if any, need to be made to the depot to welcome passenger trains again.   

Epitaph

Bringing life to existing passenger train depots should be a welcome sight for Walsenburg, Pueblo and Colorado Springs, with each city desperately seeking ways to revitalize their downtowns. That is why the stewards of these historic train stations might have their fingers crossed in the hope that the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission will find a way to bring back these structures to their glory days as passenger train terminals.

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Western wild fires continue to rage as authorities worry over July 4 fireworks

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A growing wildfire destroyed more than 100 homes in the Colorado mountains, while other blazes across the parched U.S. West kept hundreds of other homes under evacuation orders and derailed holiday plans.

Authorities announced late Monday that a fire near Fort Garland, about 205 miles (330 kilometers) southwest of Denver, had destroyed 104 homes in a mountain housing development started by multimillionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes in the 1970s. The damage toll could rise because the burn area is still being surveyed.

Tamara Estes’ family cabin, which her parents had built in 1963 using wood and rocks from the land, was among the homes destroyed.

“I think it’s sinking in more now. But we’re just crying,” she said. “My grandmother’s antique dining table and her hutch are gone.”

“It was a sacred place to us,” she added.

Andy and Robyn Kuehler watched flames approach their cabin via surveillance video from their primary residence in Nebraska.

“We just got confirmation last night that the house was completely gone. It’s … a very sickening feeling watching the fire coming towards the house,” the couple wrote in an email Tuesday.

The blaze, labeled the Spring Fire, is one of six large wildfires burning in Colorado and is the largest at 123 square miles (318 square kilometers) — about five times the size of Manhattan. While investigators believe it was started by a spark from a fire pit, other fires, like one that began burning in wilderness near Fairplay, were started by lightning.

Nearly 60 large, active blazes are burning across the West, including nine in New Mexico and six each in Utah and California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Utah, authorities have evacuated 200 to 300 homes because of a growing wildfire near a popular fishing reservoir southeast of Salt Lake City amid hot temperatures and high winds. Several structures have been lost since the fire started Sunday, but it’s unclear how many, said Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forest, Fire and State Lands.

Darren Lewis and his extended family planned to spend the Fourth of July at a cabin built nearly 50 years ago by his father and uncle in a wilderness area nestled between canyons and near a mountain river.

Instead, Lewis and his family will spend the holiday nervously waiting to hear if a half-century of family memories go up in smoke because of the fire, which has grown to 47 square miles (122 square kilometers).

“There’s a lot of history and memories that go into this cabin,” said Lewis, 44, of Magna, Utah. “The cabin we could rebuild, but the trees that we love would be gone. We’re just hoping that the wind blows the other way.”

Meanwhile, a wind-fueled wildfire in Northern California that continues to send a thick layer of smoke and ash south of San Francisco was threatening more than 900 buildings.

The massive blaze was choking skies with ash and smoke, prompting some officials to cancel Fourth of July fireworks shows and urge people to stay indoors to protect themselves from the unhealthy air.

At least 2,500 people have been told to evacuate as the so-called County Fire continues to spread, said Anthony Brown, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Brown said the blaze, which started Saturday and is surging through rugged terrain northwest of Sacramento, has grown to 113 square miles (294 square kilometers) amid hot and dry weather expected throughout the day. It was 15 percent contained Tuesday.

“The weather is better than what we had over the weekend. But it’s still hampering our efforts and it’s an area of concern,” he said.

So far this year, wildfires have burned 4,200 square miles in the United States, according to the fire center. That’s a bit below last year’s acreage to date — which included the beginning of California’s devastating fire season — but above the 10-year average of 3,600 square miles.

Because of the Independence Day holiday, authorities are also concerned about the possibility of campfires or fireworks starting new fires because of the dry, hot conditions. In Colorado, many communities have canceled firework displays, and a number of federal public lands and counties have some degree of fire restrictions in place, banning things like campfires or smoking outdoors.

In Arizona, large swaths of national forests and state trust land have been closed since before Memorial Day. Some cities have canceled fireworks displays because of extreme fire danger.

In New Mexico, all or part of three national forests remain closed because of the threat of wildfire, putting a damper on holiday camping plans. The forests that are open have strict rules, especially when it comes to fireworks.

“We’re just urging people to use extreme caution,” said Wendy Mason, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. “We want people to have fun and enjoy themselves, but we prefer they leave the fireworks shows to the professionals.”

____

Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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More firefighters called in to rein in Southern Colorado fire

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Crews struggled to rein in a wildfire that was spreading in several different directions Sunday in southern Colorado.
More firefighters were arriving to battle the blaze that has prompted the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes.
“It’s a very challenging fire, I’ll be honest with you, with all the wind changes,” Shane Greer, an incident commander with the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, told residents Sunday.
Authorities said the fire east of Fort Garland was estimated at 64 square miles (166 sq. kilometers) after unpredictable winds pushed the fire both north and south over the weekend.
About 500 firefighters have worked to contain the flames since the fire began Wednesday. A second team arrived in the area Sunday and plans to take over fighting the fire north of Highway 160.
The first team will focus on the area south of the highway.
“Usually with a fire we can chase it … we haven’t been able to chase this because it keeps going in at least three different directions,” Greer said.
Authorities said they began assessing some areas this weekend to track destroyed or damaged structures. But they cautioned that conditions remain dangerous and said they want to be sure that information is correct before notifying property owners.
The fire was expected to remain active and grow in intensity with a warm and dry forecast on Sunday.
Highway 160 remains closed and officials said they could not estimate when it will reopen or when the evacuation orders will end.
The Costilla County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday said a man was being held on suspicion of arson in connection with the fire. It is not clear if Jesper Joergensen, 52, has an attorney.
At Sunday’s public update, officials said they do not believe Joergensen started the fire intentionally.
State emergency management officials reported nine other fires remained active around the state on Sunday. Officials near Durango hoped that a cold front would slow down one of those. The fire began a month ago and is estimated at 77 square miles.
The Durango Herald reported that authorities planned to relocate some crews and equipment to help firefighters guarding communities as the flames moved north.

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