Firefighters make progress containing N. Colorado wildfire but high winds expected to return

By Dan Elliott, AP
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Progress made on Colorado blaze as winds return

LOVELAND, Colo. — Firefighters were trying to gain ground on a wildfire in the northern Colorado foothills Tuesday ahead of strong winds expected to move in, potentially spreading the flames.

The fire, the second major blaze to break out on the Front Range in a week, has burned about 710 acres, or about 1.1 square miles, of tinder-dry grass and trees in steep terrain just west of Loveland.

Terry Krasko, a spokesman for the team coordinating more than 550 firefighters, said the size was changed from an earlier estimate of nearly 1,000 acres due to better mapping. Crews have dug lines around 35 percent of the blaze, up from an estimated 20 percent earlier Tuesday.

“Those hot-shot crews have been pounding a lot of line today,” Krasko said.

High winds were predicted overnight and the humidity was still low, but Krasko said fire managers were “cautiously optimistic” because of the large number of crews and equipment available.

“We’re not going to be stranded without help,” Krasko said.

Earlier, incident team manager Jim Thomas said the next 36 hours were pivotal for crews to make headway because of the wind in the forecast. He said the fire wasn’t moving toward populated areas but winds of up to 28 mph were expected Wednesday.

“We’re going to go out and pound on it,” said Thomas, who also led the fight against a wildfire near Boulder last week that destroyed at least 166 homes.

The northern Colorado fire prompted the evacuation of a four-mile radius, but about 100 residents were allowed briefly into the evacuation area Tuesday to check on their homes, escorted by sheriff’s deputies. Sheriff’s officials said they weren’t sure when people would be able to return for good.

Authorities don’t know exactly how many homes and residents are in the evacuation area. The Red Cross said 76 evacuees have registered with the agency.

Sheriff’s investigators believe the fire was started Sunday by two people burning leaves and tree branches at a home. Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said investigators met with prosecutors Tuesday, but he didn’t expect a decision until next week on whether criminal charges will be filed.

So far, firefighting costs are $1.67 million, Krasko said.

Fire danger remained high in parts of the state Tuesday. Both Larimer and Douglas counties banned outdoor or open fires in unincorporated areas.

The fire near Boulder — which scorched at least 10 square miles and has cost $9.6 million to fight — has been fully contained but firefighters were still working to put out hot spots within the perimeter Tuesday. Investigators believe that fire was reignited by strong winds even though a volunteer firefighter doused it with water and stirred the ashes to put it out.

A decision on whether to file charges in the Boulder fire wasn’t expected until early next week, district attorney’s spokeswoman Catherine Olguin said. Sheriff’s investigators have briefed prosecutors but haven’t turned over their final report, she said.

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