U.S.
4:53 am
Tue June 12, 2012

Massive Wildfire Burns Out Of Control In Colo.

Originally published on Tue June 12, 2012 7:18 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In the southern Rocky Mountains, several destructive wildfires are burning across a vast stretch of parched land and firefighters are struggling to gain control. In Colorado, the High Park Fire which flared up this past weekend is huge, even for a region where wildfires are common. The fires quickly engulfed more than 41,000 acres, destroying dozens of homes and buildings. And there's no end in sight. Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC brings us this update.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The reliable spring snows didn't come to northern Colorado this year, but the dry lightning did. Authorities say that's what sparked the High Park Fire, which was first reported at Two Acres Saturday, but quickly ballooned to become one of the largest recorded fires in Colorado history.

LOU DEANGELIS: We've been building our dream house up there.

SIEGLER: When the Larimer County sheriff's officers came to Lou DeAngelis' newly built home in the fire's path and said it was time to leave, he stayed behind as long as he could, cutting down trees around the perimeter of this property.

DEANGELIS: Ten more minutes I probably wouldn't have got out. When I drove out, I was about 60 feet away from 300-foot flames blowing sideways along my truck.

SIEGLER: DeAngelis doesn't know if his new home is still standing, and he and several other frustrated evacuees crashed a news conference Monday in a dusty parking lot west of Fort Collins. They were looking for answers from authorities as the fire raged less than a half-mile away in the hills above. But Larimer County sheriff Justin Smith doesn't have many answers.

SHERIFF JUSTIN SMITH: We do expect continued concern and frustration. We understand that without being able to know. If this was a fire with ten potential homes affected and a few hundred acres, the ability to get in might be relatively quick.

SIEGLER: But the High Park Fire is anything but that. Crews here have been up against hot weather and gusty winds that have been fanning the flames. Smith says the fire's behavior is just too dangerous, and crews haven't even been able to start digging containment lines, let alone know which homes have burned.

This fire has grown so rapidly thanks to the erratic winds. And I'm trying to shield my microphone right now standing in the tiny village of Bellvue, looking at big plumes of smoke carrying haze and ash all over us, obstructing what would normally be a great view of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

HANK SCHLABER: Yeah, I gave away a couple gallons of water and a few sandwiches. I didn't get rid of too many yet, a lot of waves and a lot of thank-yous.

SIEGLER: In front of the normally sleepy Bellvue Bean coffee shop, Hank Schlaber and his neighbor Gary Lemmert decided to pass the time offering free food and water to fire crews. Both have been evacuated since Saturday and Lemmert says he's been getting conflicting reports on whether his home 10 miles up the canyon is still standing.

GARY LEMMERT: The only way I've been checking on it is call, and if we get our answering service, then I know at least the phone. You know, the line is still working.

SIEGLER: It may be some time before Lemmert is allowed back in. Authorities are worried the High Park Fire will continue to burn out of control for days. Another concern is that a similarly large and destructive wildfire next door in New Mexico has put a strain on resources. But Bill Hahnenberg is offering assurances he'll have what he needs in Colorado soon. Hahnenberg is commander of the national fire management team that took over the High Park fire yesterday.

BILL HAHNENBERG: We're close to having what we need. We expect to grow over the next couple of days, and I'm confident we'll be able to get whatever resources we think we need.

SIEGLER: Colorado's congressional delegation is asking the federal government for more resources to fight the High Park Fire. They're also pressuring President Obama to allocate more federal money for building more heavy air tankers to fight future fires.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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