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Crews brace for high winds at High Park Fire

June 16, 2012
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photo - A helicopter returns to Fort Collins, Colo., after dumping a load of water on hotspots of the High Park Fire on Saturday, June 16, 2012. Fire officials say more than 1,500 personnel are now involved in fighting the fire, which has scorched about 85 square miles and burned at least 112 homes. It's 20 percent contained but the incident commander says full containment could be two to four weeks away. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Karl Gehring)  MAGS OUT; TV OUT; INTERNET OUT Photo by MBR
A helicopter returns to Fort Collins, Colo., after dumping a load of water on hotspots of the High Park Fire on Saturday, June 16, 2012. Fire officials say more than 1,500 personnel are now involved in fighting the fire, which has scorched about 85 square miles and burned at least 112 homes. It's 20 percent contained but the incident commander says full containment could be two to four weeks away. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Karl Gehring) MAGS OUT; TV OUT; INTERNET OUT Photo by MBR 

DENVER - Crews in northern Colorado braced for powerful fire-fanning winds as they battle a blaze that has scorched about 85 square miles of mountainous forest land and destroyed at least 181 homes, the most in state history.

The destructiveness of the High Park Fire burning 15 miles west of Fort Collins surpassed the Fourmile Canyon wildfire, which destroyed 169 homes west of Boulder in September 2010.

More than 1,630 personnel worked on the fire Saturday, officials said in a late-night news release. That was an increase of more than 100 firefighters from a day earlier.

The lightning-caused blaze, which is believed to have killed a 62-year-old woman whose body was found in her cabin, was 45 percent contained, Cpl. Julie Berney of the Larimer County sheriff's office said Sunday. The fire's incident commander said full containment could be two to four weeks away.

Fire information officer Brett Haberstick said crews have made progress in containing a 200-acre spot fire that erupted Thursday afternoon north of the Cache La Poudre River, a critical line of defense against northward growth.

"Two 20-person hotshot crews worked throughout the day to secure lines around the perimeter of this spot fire," the officials said in a release.

Firefighters have extinguished other incursions north of the river, but the most recent one appeared to be more serious.

The fire was reported June 9 and has since raced through large swaths of private and U.S. Forest Service land.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, met with fire managers in Fort Collins on Saturday and said "fighting this fire is going to require us to be aggressive, persistent and also patient.

"We're going to continue to work to make our forests more resilient. We're going to continue to ensure that adequate resources are provided for fighting fires and we are going to continue to make sure that we encourage appropriate stewardship of our forests," he said.

Vilsack praised Congress for allowing the government to contract additional aircraft — particularly heavy tankers — to fight wildfires across the West. But he called on lawmakers for budget certainty to help plan for future fires.

Vilsack is scheduled to hold a news conference with U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in Albuquerque on Sunday.

Meanwhile in New Mexico, questions were being raised about whether bureaucratic red tape prevented firefighters from saving more homes affected by the Little Bear Fire after federal officials released transcripts of the firefighters' response.

Congressman Steve Pearce said Friday in an interview with KOB-TV that he believed federal officials could have done more after lightning sparked the fire outside the resort town of Ruidoso on June 4. Days later, high winds sent embers more than a mile from the blaze's end, causing the inferno to grow.

But officials released transcripts of the response on the Lincoln National Forest website that suggested firefighters were attacking the blaze as soon as it was a quarter of an acre.

The fire has destroyed 224 homes and burned 59 square miles.

In Arizona, the Northern Arizona Incident Management Team took command of the 1,500 acre blaze in the Tonto National Forest. Officials said the fire was 15 percent contained and firefighters continued to battle unseasonably dry fuels, high temperatures and low humidity.

___

Associated Press writer Russell Contreras in Albuquerque contributed to this report.

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