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Wind-driven wildfires trigger evacuations in Colorado

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - Two wind-driven wildfires erupted in northern Colorado on Friday, prompting the evacuation of about 50 residents and signaling an early start to the wildfire season in the parched Rocky Mountain west.

The larger of the two blazes that prompted the evacuations, the Soldier Canyon Fire, has charred about 800 acres near Lory State Park, Poudre Fire Authority Captain Patrick Love told Reuters.

"We've been experiencing strong, erratic winds from the north all afternoon," Love said.

Along with the winds, unseasonably high temperatures and low humidity have fanned the fire that is burning about 75 miles northwest of Denver, he said.

No structures have been lost and no injuries have been reported, Love said, but the evacuations were ordered in case winds push the flames toward residential neighborhoods.

A second, smaller fire broke out west of the town of LaPorte, six miles north of Fort Collins, the Larimer County Office of Emergency Management said in a statement. Officials had no estimate on its size.

The causes of the fires were under investigation on Friday.

The early-season wildfires could be a bad omen for drought-stricken Colorado, which had one of its worst ever wildfire seasons in 2012.

All of Colorado is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Snowpack levels in the Colorado mountains are below the annual average. The state's high-population urban corridor and farmers on the eastern plains rely on melting mountain snow for drinking water and irrigation.

Larimer County was particularly hard hit by wildfires in 2012. The so-called High Park Fire blackened more than 87,000 acres, killed an elderly woman, and destroyed nearly 260 homes.

It was the second-largest wildfire on record in Colorado.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and David Brunnstrom)

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