Stiff winds fuel Colo. wildfire; looting a concern

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DENVER (AP) — Crews in northern Colorado are facing powerful winds as they battle a blaze that has scorched about 86 square miles of mountainous forest land and destroyed at least 181 homes, the most in state history. Meanwhile, local authorities are focusing on another concern — looting.

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 are working on the Fort Collins-area fire, which was sparked by lightning and is 45 percent contained.

Julie Berney with the Larimer County Sheriff's Office said firefighters can expect winds of 30 mph with gusts of up to 50 mph Sunday. Some rain moved through Saturday evening, but it wasn't enough to quell the fire.

"The problem is that when you have a fire like this, even if it rains it evaporates before it hits the ground," Berney said.

On Sunday afternoon, high winds prompted fire managers to ground all helicopters working on the blaze and to send 96 notices to residents, ordering the immediate evacuation of the Hewlett Gulch Subdivision in the Poudre Canyon area north of the fire. It was unclear how many homes were affected.

A red flag warning has been issued for the area until 8 p.m. Sunday, and temperatures could reach 90 degrees, the hottest day since the fire was reported June 9.

But incident commander Bill Hahnenberg said he was pleased with the firefighters' progress, while also acknowledging that high winds could be a test.

"A scenario could be we'll lose some line, and then we just go after it the next day and the next day," he said. "We're going to do everything we can to protect facilities, and we're prepared to do that."

As firefighters try to get the upper hand on the blaze, which has burned large swaths of private and U.S. Forest Service land, local authorities have dispatched roving patrols to combat looting.

On Sunday, deputies arrested 30-year-old Michael Stillman Maher, of Denver, on charges including theft and impersonating a firefighter. The sheriff's department said Maher was driving through the fire zone with phony firefighter credentials and a stolen government license plate.

His truck was later seen near a bar in Laporte, and investigators say they found a firearm and stolen property in the vehicle.

"There's a handful out there that are taking advantage of others," said Sheriff Justin Smith, adding that "if somebody's sneaking around back there, we're going to find them."

Also Sunday, a fire erupted in the foothills west of Colorado Springs, prompting the evacuation of some cabins and a recreation area near the Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir. U.S. Forest Service spokesman Ralph Bellah told The Gazette (http://bit.ly/MiQvne ) that the fire was reported at about 12:30 p.m. and quickly grew to up to 100 acres.

Meanwhile, a fire near Pagosa Springs in the southwestern part of the state has grown to 11,617 acres and is 30 percent contained. Hot, dry conditions Sunday are expected to fuel the fire, which was sparked by lightning May 13.

Across the West:

— California: Authorities are evacuating homes in eastern San Diego County as firefighters battle a 100-acre wildfire that has destroyed one structure. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says the fire began Sunday afternoon in a rural area northeast of Campo and near the Golden Acorn Casino.

—New Mexico: A wildfire in southern New Mexico has destroyed 242 homes and businesses, and firefighters are working to increase containment and keep an eye out for possible lightning.

The 59-square-mile Little Bear Fire in Ruidoso is 60 percent contained. Dan Bastion, a spokesman for crews fighting the fire, says most of the fire is in the mop-up stage, but crews need to build more containment on the fire's active west side to deprive it of fuel.

— Arizona: Firefighters are focusing on protecting electrical transmission lines near a 3,100-acre blaze on the Tonto National Forest in northern Arizona. Officials say hot weather and steep slopes remain a concern, and firefighters are on the alert for thunderstorms and possible lightning strikes. The fire is 15 percent contained.

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