Colorado wildfire: Winds ground air support to High Park fire crews; more evacuations

Colorado wildfire: Winds ground air support to High Park fire crews; more evacuations

18 June 2012

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 USA – Wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour have been screaming across the High Park fire forcing helicopters that have been helping to fight the blaze west of Fort Collins to stay on the ground, and prompting a number of new evacuations.

The choppers — 18 are fighting the fire — are down until further notice.

Winds are blowing at 30 to 50 mph across the blaze which has consumed 56,480 acres as of Sunday evening.

Crews are working to re-calculate that estimate as they expect the acres burned to have increased, but fire information officer Brett Haberstick, said the fire growth is thought to be within the perimeter fire crews had already set up.

In a precautionary move, residents of the Hewlett Gulch subdivision were told to evacuate their homes Sunday afternoon, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kristy Wumkes.

“We didn’t want anyone getting stuck in there,” she said.

Though residents of some areas evacuated last week have been allowed to return to their homes, some new evacuations are putting them on alert again, and others have remained in effect much longer.

The newest mandatory evacuations include 331 homes in Soldier Canyon and Mill Canyon. Pre-evacuation orders were sent to 473 homes in the Shoreline Road area south of Lory State Park.

Sunday evening, as dusk fell on Fort Collins, the air south of Horsetooth Reservoir was thicker with smoke than it had been in a week, as white plumes again billowed over the western horizon and turned the sun blood red.

And for the second time in a week Darlene Little was fleeing the fire with her Subaru loaded with children and other treasures.

“Is it ever going to end,” she said of the fire and the worry.

Her home was put on alert for residents to be able to evacuate in the two hours’ notice, but she was headed to her parents’ home in Loveland with her daughters, ages 6 and 8.

“I”m not going to pull them out of bed in the middle of the night again,” she said. “It’s all traumatizing enough.”

Despite winds Sunday afternoon, Wumkes said early in the day she hasn’t heard anything new on the fire’s movement.

“It sure is smoky in Fort Collins right now,” Wumkes said.

The increased fire activity prompted emergency workers to move the Highway 14 road block from Gateway Park back to Ted’s Place, with access to Poudre Canyon from the roadblock limited to fire personnel only.

The fire is 45 percent contained, and while rumors of looting have circulated, there has been no evidence of that, said Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith.

A man was arrested after firefighters found him driving a vehicle bearing unauthorized government plates within the fire area.

Michael Maher, 30, has been charged with obstructing fire and police operations, displaying government plates, impersonating a fireman and police official.

Maher was spotted in the fire zone Saturday night driving a silver Toyota Tacoma with a government license plate.

The vehicle was later spotted in Laporte and deputies found Maher at a bar in the town. Deputies found stolen property and a firearm in the vehicle and the plate was stolen from the Glenwood Springs area

“If anyone is sneaking around there, we are going to find them,” Smith said. Maher has an arrest record that includes driving under suspension, driving under the influence, and domestic violence, with all the offenses recorded in Eagle County.

The fire has destroyed 181 homes, making it the most destructive fire in Colorado history.

Still, firefighters have protected 529 residences, said Bill Hahnenberg, incident commander for the High Park fire. “That is a success story on the part of these folks that are working hard out there.”

Today fire spotting has been reported in Lawrence creek, Redstone canyon, and Horsetooth mountain, possibly threatening communication towers.

Firefighters have built a line around a spot fire that is roughly 200 acres on the north side of Poudre Canyon near Steven’s Gulch. The fire is located in steep terrain and timber and difficult to access by ground.

“We don’t want fire to get started on this side of the river and become a threat to the Glacier View subdivision,” Hahnenberg said.

Firefighters have accomplished most of the containment along the fire’s southern flank. The most dangerous portions of the blaze continue to be on the southwest and northwest flanks.

In addition to the winds, temperatures today soared to a record high of 98 degrees with low humidity, creating conditions that could spread the fire.

“We expect the southwest to continue to be problematic, primarily because of the weather change around noon. The fire could become a real threat south of Buckhorn Road,” said Hahnenberg.

On the plus side, the blaze has moved somewhat to the west taking it to an area of meadow where there is less dry timber and other fuels to consume, he said.

Firefighters are “pretty confident,” that even with the wind, lines they have built will hold, Hahnenberg said. “But there are conditions that sometimes we can’t overcome,” he said.

More than 1,600 firefighters are now working the blaze.

Smith said even when people are informed that their homes have burned they are showing remarkable grace. “The first thing they do is thank the fire fighters,” Smith said.

Emergency workers have been doing a “windshield assessment” to count burned homes, recording some structures that though burned, may not have been homes, Smith said.

A more accurate assessment will begin Tuesday, he said.

Monday morning fire evacuees may pick up “disaster cleanup recovery kits” — that include sifters, shovels, rakes, work gloves, masks, and trash bags among other cleaning supplies — at the Johnson Hall on the Colorado State University campus where the Red Cross has set up a resource and distribution center.

The center will be open open 7 a.m. through 7 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. through 3 p.m. on weekends.

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