Beetle-stricken trees add to fire crews’ concerns | AspenTimes.com

Beetle-stricken trees add to fire crews’ concerns

Dan Elliott
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

People watch the High Park wildfire burn from Bingham Hill west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Tuesday, June 12, 2012. The wildfire started Saturday and has burned over 40,000 acres. One death is blamed on the wildfire as more residents were evacuated. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

BELLVUE, Colo. – The northern Colorado wildfire blamed for one death grew Wednesday as firefighters dealt with hot dry weather, shifting winds and hundreds of acres of standing trees killed by pine beetles.

The fire, which has spread to 73 square miles, was 10 percent contained. More than 1,200 firefighters worked to protect homes and struggled to keep the blaze from spreading past a highway that runs along a canyon cut by the Cache La Poudre River. Five of the nation’s available 17 heavy air tankers were deployed to fight the fire.

Larimer County sheriff’s deputies were beginning the task of assessing the damage. Hundreds of displaced residents were waiting for word about their homes, and the American Red Cross made mental health assistance available to help those getting bad news.

Without official information, residents were passing news to each other from local firefighters who are battling the blaze.

“My house is still there as of now,” said Jordan Levick of a photo sent to him by an acquaintance. “My wife’s pregnant right now, so it’s been a real stress.” He said that knowing his house survived makes the wait more frustrating. “Now, I really feel like I want to go back.”

Larimer County Executive Officer Nick Christensen said determining property damage could take days.

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“It can be very difficult in a fire zone to distinguish a barn from a small cabin or even a shed from a house in some cases where there’s very significant damage,” Christensen said.

The fire, which swept through the foothills and canyons 15 miles west of Fort Collins, crossed the highway Tuesday and burned 25 acres before crews extinguished the blaze.

“With these kinds of difficult fires, I’ve learned to have low expectations,” said Incident Cmdr. Bill Hahnenberg.

Fire managers said the blaze’s west side was a concern because 70 percent of the trees had been killed by pine beetles, leaving drying wooden poles with branches and red pine needles that pose a hazard for firefighters.

Hahnenberg said they’re looking for roads and ridges where firefighters can light fires to burn up fuel.

Research done by Colorado State University, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rocky Mountain Research Station shows that beetle killed trees can influence fire behavior, but only under certain conditions, said Chris Hoffman said, a fire science professor at CSU.

“It’s a complicated issue to look at,” he said, adding that dry windy conditions provide ripe conditions for wildfires even without the beetle kill.

A relative of a 62-year-old woman believed to have died in the fire Saturday said an evacuation warning likely went to the main house at the property, not a cabin where she lived.

Karen Steadman told KUSA-TV that her mother-in-law, Linda Steadman, had previously left for wildfires and would have left if she had known about the evacuation.

She said family members rushed to the ranch Saturday when they saw smoke but a “fire ball” came down to the property. They only got within about 50 yards.

Authorities have allowed some residents evacuated to return home and were considering lifting evacuations for other areas – but more people have been warned to be prepared to leave. Sheriff’s officials have been unable to provide an estimate of how many people were displaced.