Colorado wildfire: High Park fire grows to 20,000 acres, rages out of control

Colorado wildfire: High Park fire grows to 20,000 acres, rages out of control

11 June 2012

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 USA — The wildly unpredictable High Park fire grew to 20,000 acres Sunday, stoking worries that its power will only grow.

“It’s spread in almost every direction,” said Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith. “It splinters to the south, and then it splinters to the east. I don’t know that we’ve ever seen anything like this before.”

By late Sunday, two homes were confirmed destroyed among at least 18 structures burned. One person remained missing, and Smith indicated that person may be dead.

“This fire has a mind of its own, and it’s just telling us what to do,” said Poudre Fire Authority Chief Tom DeMint. He called the blaze a “dirty fire” with the potential to be very destructive.

High winds and dry fuels are driving the blaze, forcing more than 2,600 evacuation calls by Sunday evening to people living in Poudre, Rist, Redstone and Mill canyons. Another 325 calls were made just after 8 p.m. for the area south of County Road 38E from Gindler Ranch Road west to Milner Ranch Road.

“We’ve had 36 straight hours of evacuations, and that’s just unheard of,” Smith said.

“In some areas, even green grass is burning,” said DeMint, adding that the blaze has burned through many areas twice, including over remnants of previous fires.

But even as more than 250 firefighters battled the blaze northwest of Fort Collins, local officials expressed worries that resources were being stretched thin with fires raging in Wyoming and New Mexico.

“We’re definitely competing with fires in New Mexico and other areas,” said Nick Christensen, an executive officer with the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.

The Guernsey State Park fire near Wheatland, Wyo., burned 6 square miles earlier Sunday. And the Ruidoso fire in New Mexico is at 26,000 acres.

The High Park fire is burning in thick timber and large stands of beetle-killed trees. Fighting it has been compounded by winds and hot, dry weather.

“We have planned for and trained for fires in every neighborhood,” Smith said. “But this fire hit every neighborhood at once. Flames were licking at the units that were doing the evacuations. We have had evacuation crews on the run for almost 24 hours straight.”

Firefighters are working in steep, heavily wooded areas as well as meadows.

Gov. John Hickenlooper toured the scene Sunday morning.

“This is the fire a lot of folks in Larimer County have always worried about,” he said. “We are throwing everything at it that we can.”

Four helicopters and two air tankers dropped water and flame retardant as 15 engines were working with firefighters on the ground.

There were no plans for containment as firefighters focused on structures and evacuation.

“Those folks are doing everything they can, but Mother Nature is running this fire,” Smith said.

The fire is slated to receive a Type 1 designation today that will make it eligible for national resources, Christensen said.

The Colorado National Guard has two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters ready at the Loveland Airport in Fort Collins for water-bucket drops, said Capt. Darin Overstreet, a Guard spokesman.

Overstreet said the National Guard received an executive order from Hickenlooper and the Colorado Division of Emergency Management requesting support with the High Park fire.

The cause of the fire had not been determined.

In addition to protecting homes and people, the fire crews were focused on protecting a field of communications towers on top of Buckhorn Mountain.

If the towers were lost, it would cut off radio communication except for line-of-sight communications.

The site includes the transmitter for KUNC-FM 91.5, off the air since Saturday.

The towers relay “all of the public-safety communications in Larimer County,” sheriff’s spokesman John Schulz said.

“We don’t want to be left high and dry if that gets taken out,” Schulz said.

At 20,000 acres, the High Park fire covered more than 31 square miles. Boulder covers 24 square miles, and Denver 44.

An evacuation center set up at Cache La Poudre Middle School in Laporte was moved late Sunday to the Ranch at Interstate 25 and Crossroads Boulevard because of smoke near LaPorte. About 20 evacuees stayed at the middle school Saturday night.

Jim Smith, 52, his wife, two children and their three dogs were at the school Sunday.

Smith said he has lived in his home on Spring Valley Road for 20 years and that while he has seen six or eight large fires while living there, this is the hottest and fastest-moving.

Smith said he and his family evacuated their home before the official evacuation notice was issued at 4 p.m. Saturday after seeing how quickly the fire was moving from atop a nearby ridge.

“We got up (to Rist Canyon) around noon, and it was burning good then,” Smith said. “But by 1 o’clock, it had exploded.”

Rosemary Filano, 60, said she was chased from her home by a roaring wall of flames.

Red Cross officials said they didn’t know how many displaced families would use the center.

“It could be zero to 100,” said Adam Rae, a Red Cross spokesman. “But we are prepared to open up multiple facilities if we have to.”

Meanwhile, about 20 nervous dogs and cats peered from small cages inside a mobile MaxFund shelter near the gym.

Lizz Grenard, who is running the animal shelter, said the animals were confused and antsy.

“A lot are used to being on big acreages and running around. It’s tough on them,” she said.

The fire was reported around 6 a.m. Saturday as a 2-acre blaze in the Paradise Park area and blew up around noon. At 10 p.m. Saturday, the total acreage burned was estimated at 8,000.

Staff writer Tegan Hanlon contributed to this report.


Fires near Colorado

Strong winds on Sunday grounded aircraft fighting a 40-square-mile wildfire near the mountain town of Ruidoso in southern New Mexico. Crews were still working to build a fire line. The blaze started Friday and has damaged or destroyed 36 structures.

It wasn’t yet known how many of the structures lost were homes.

The latest New Mexico fire is smaller than the Whitewater-Baldy fire — the largest in the state’s history — but it’s more concerning to authorities because it started closer to homes, said Dan Ware, a spokesman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. He said the number of Ruidoso evacuees was in the hundreds.

Karen Takai, a spokeswoman for crews battling the Ruidoso fire, said smoke was heavily affecting Capitan, about 5 miles northeast. She said that in addition to the communities that had been evacuated, Capitan and others could face evacuation.

Elsewhere Sunday, firefighters were battling a wildfire that blackened 6 square miles in Wyoming’s Guernsey State Park and forced the evacuation of campers and visitors. Cooler weather was helping firefighters in their battle against two other wildfires in southern Utah.

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