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The Challenge Of Turning The Tide On The High Park Fire

Kirk Siegler

Fire crews working against the High Park Fire took advantage of yesterday’s cooler temperatures and calmer winds.

The lightning caused blaze has blackened was updated Wednesday at 7:59am in the morning to 46,600 acres and 10% containment.

The skies above the normally sleepy little towns of LaPorte and Bellvue buzzed with a steady parade of choppers and planes dropping water and fire retardant on the flames in the nearby foothills. While the forecast over the next few days is concerning, fire managers are quick to point out that roughly a third of the nation’s current firefighting resources are now here in northern Colorado.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin says the sheer man power on the blaze now is a far cry fromthis past weekend – when searing heat, erratic winds and extremely dry fuels caused the fire to race up and down mountainsides. Authorities are making progress, however, Segin says it will take some time to fully contain the blaze.

"And once you start building line, you can start tying it all together, essentially it’s connecting the dots, dot to dot to dot, and before long we will have a line all the way around this fire, we just don’t know when it’s going to be."

Imagine having to dig, in most cases by hand, a fire line all the way around the perimeter of the city of Fort Collins and then some. Toss in on top of that the task of keeping the wildfire from getting outside of it. For the sake of comparison the city of Fort Collins is 47 square miles, at 43,372 acres the High Park Fire is currently 67.768 squares miles to be exact.

That’s what crews are up against. Once they’ve built a line around it – that’s 100% containment. But even when that happens, it’s by no means under control.

The Forest Service tries to squash all wildfires that are human-caused, and most lighting-caused blazes like this one that are near homes. But the agency’s century-long legacy of suppressing fires in areas like the Front Range - not to mention the current drought - have made conditions ripe for so-called catastrophic, un-natural wildfires. There’s little that can be done to stop blazes this big, and incident commander Bill Hahnenberg worries it’s going to be a long summer.

"We’re going to have those conditions here in Colorado until we either get the monsoons which sometimes we get in early July, or until fall conditions set in, so we know we’re in this for at least a few weeks, and possibly until fall. "

Hahnenberg was speaking at the media briefing area which is normally a small wildlife park on the outskirts of Bellvue.

It’s now home to a bustling scene of satellite TV trucks, fire information officers clad in yellow fire-proof shirts and green pants. Quite often you can find a few of the fire’s estimated 2,000 evacuees, who come looking for news.

John and Beth Morris live at the entrance to nearby Poudre Canyon, and have been out of their home since Sunday. They left with two car loads of important documents and cherished photos. John was relieved:

"We’re very fortunate, we took some pictures which we’ve blown up and looked at on the computer and our house is still standing. The fire came very close but it didn’t destroy the house and it didn’t destroy the outbuildings."

Beth chimed in with "Thank goodness for the firefighters."

The Morris’s are like many evacuees who say they understand the consequences of living in fire-prone forests along the arid Front Range. But for others who still don’t know whether their homes are standing, patience is wearing thin.

Word should soon be coming. At the final briefing of the day on Tuesday night, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said that officials hope to start conducting structure reviews on Wednesday.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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