Colorado Wildfire: High Park Fire Near 14,000 Acres, Being Fought From Air And Ground

by
ryan
At least 18 structures have been burned in the fast-moving High Park Fire, which has consumed about 14,000 acres, forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes and spewed plumes of smoke so thick they hide the Rocky Mountains.

Colorado Wildfire: High Park Fire Near 14,000 Acres, Being Fought From Air And Ground

At least 18 structures have been burned in the fast-moving High Park Fire, which has consumed about 14,000 acres, forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes and spewed plumes of smoke so thick they hide the Rocky Mountains.

"Everybody is on on deck," said Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was at the scene of the fire northwest of Fort Collinsthis morning. "This is the fire a lot of folks in Larimer County have always worried about. We are throwing everything at it that we can."

There are four helicopters and two air tankers dropping water and flame retardant, 250 firefighters and 15 engines on the ground,

The fire remains at 0 percent containment and is classified as a Type 3 fire, but will become a Type 1 fire tomorrow, said Nick Christensen, an executive officer with the Larimer County Sheriff's Office. Type 1 fires receive national resources to aid crews.

The governor said that while temperatures should be cooler than Saturday's mid-90s, wind and low humidity will continue to make it difficult to fight the fire.

"Nature is conspiring against us, with a stiff wind and dry," Hickenlooper said. "It's tough."

Poudre Fire Authority Chief Tom DeMint called the blaze a "dirty fire" because of the "amount of unburned fuel contained within its perimeter."

The fire is burning in heavy timber and large stands of beetle-killed trees northwest of Fort Collins.

DeMint said the fire had the potential to be very destructive.

The blaze had "licked at the heels" of evacuation teams as they went door-to-door Saturday, said Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith.

"We have planned for and trained for fires in every neighborhood," Smith said during a briefing this morning. "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."

In addition to protecting homes and keeping people from being injured, the fire crews are focused on protecting a field of communications towers on top of Buckhorn Mountain.

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

The site includes the transmitter for KUNC 91.5 FM, which has been off the air since yesterday, and towers relaying "all of the public safety communications in Larimer County," sheriff's spokesman John Schulz said this morning.

The electricity is out at the site, so the public safety towers are being powered by battery back up. Engineers are trying to figure out what to do once the battery power runs out.

"We don't want to be left high and dry if that gets taken out," Schulz said.

The county has made a total 1,600 evacuation calls, 800 of them today forcing people from homes in Poudre, Rist, Redstone and Mill canyons.

At 14,000 acres the High Park fire is almost as large as as the 24-square-mile city of Boulder.

While there has been speculation about missing people, officials said they have no information."We can't say whether there will be one, 10 or a number in between there," Christensen. "We're hoping that it's none."

Evacuation centers have been set-up at The Ranch, at Interstate 25 and Crossroads Boulevard, and Cache LaPoudre Middle School in Laporte.

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

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

Smith said he and his family evacuated their home before the official evacuation notice was issued at 4 p.m. 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 one o'clock it had exploded."

The Ranch evacuation center is also handling large animals and livestock. Smaller animals and pets are being cared for by the Larimer Humane Society.

The fire was reported around 6 a.m. Saturday as a 2-acre blaze in the Paradise Park and blew up around noon. At 10 p.m. Saturday, the total acres burned was estimated at 8,000 but over night, winds shifted and officials believe there was significant growth in the fire.

Aerial flight are set to today to get a better handle on the size and scope of the fire, officials said.

Fire fighters are working in steep, heavily wooded areas as well as meadows. Smith said that the fire is behaving much more aggressively than normal, moving quickly through grasses and continuing a rapid spread during the night, when cooler temperatures typically help slow the progress of the flames.

The cause of the fire was undetermined. Smith said he hoped point-of-origin investigators could begin their work today.

"Obviously, the conditions today were very tough, very hot, windy conditions, steep conditions," Christensen, of the Larimer County Sheriff's Office.

One firefighter was sidelined because of heat exhaustion. No other injuries were reported.

The U.S. Forest Service said Saturday evening the uncontrolled blaze was burning in the crowns of trees and that its growth potential was high.

Winds are expected to be between 15 and 25 mph with gusts as high as 40 mph this afternoon, Christensen said. So far, the cooler temperature and calm winds have helped firefighters in the difficult, steep terrain.

"We're working not only very hard, but very smart," Christensen said. "We're working very hard to turn the corner on this thing."