Budget cuts strain efforts to fight large Western fires

In this file photo made July 13, 2006, a P2-V Neptune air tanker drops retardant on a wildfire southwest of Elko, Nev. An air tanker dropping retardant on a remote wildfire along the Utah-Nevada line crashed Sunday, June 3, 2012, killing both crew members, authorities said. The pilots were flying a P-2V air tanker that is owned by Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Mont.
file, Ross Andreson,AP Photo/Elko Daily Free Press

The massive wildfire in Colorado has turned deadly. A 62-year-old woman is the first fatality, her home one of 125 buildings burned by the fire as it spread across 68 square miles near Fort Collins.

As fire-fighters struggle, those evacuated from their homes -- like Geneieve Kidd -- can do little but nervously watch.

"Right below that little white water tower, where all those trees are ... that's where all of our houses are," Kidd said.

The worst of times for some has brought out the best in others. Jennifer Oliver delivered bags of toiletries to the Salvation Army for evacuees.

"It pains me to see somebody without," she said.

For 5-year-old Madilynn, it's a very grown up lesson about fires. Her family is helping, "So people can live in this world," she says.

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As losses mount, federal officials insist they have enough resources despite the fact that their firefighting budget has been cut by more than $200 million since 2010.

They now face 19 large, active fires across the West.

The big air tankers that drop fire retardant are a key resource that's diminishing. There were 43 tankers a decade ago; now there are 17. One tanker crashed last week, killing two pilots. Another made an emergency landing when a gear failed to come down.

It's such a serious problem that Colorado Sen. Mark Udall got a bill through Congress to let the Forest Service sign contracts to lease seven more tankers.

"The air tankers that are now available are dated. They're old. There are not enough of them," Udall said. "What does worry me is literally having enough people and enough aircraft if we had another fire of this magnitude."

There are some 600 firefighters camped out on the fire line, with 200 more expected by the end of the week. The weather appears to be improving, and they hope to have 10 percent containment in the next day.