LAPORTE —  The High Park fire swept across 20,000 acres with a roar and by Sunday had destroyed at least 18 structures, forced hundreds to flee and spewed smoky plumes that turned the sun blood red and blotted out the Rockies.

But even as more than 250 firefighters battled the blaze northwest of Fort Collins, local officials expressed worries that resources were being stretched thin with fires raging in Wyoming and New Mexico.

"We're definitely competing with fires in New Mexico and other areas," said Nick Christensen, an executive officer with the Larimer County Sheriff's Office.

The Guernsey State Park fire near Wheatland, Wyo., had burned six square miles earlier Sunday. And the Ruidoso fire in New Mexico is at 26,000 acres.

By Sunday afternoon about 2,000 evacuation calls had been made forcing people from homes in Poudre, Rist, Redstone and Mill canyons.

But the fire remained at zero containment with the prospect of growing. Late Sunday afternoon the Larimer County Sheriff's Office sent out another 326 emergency calls for homes from Horsetooth Reservoir to Lory State park.

The problem is that the fire is burning in thick timber and large stands of beetle-killed trees.

Poudre Fire Authority Chief Tom DeMint called the blaze a "dirty fire" with the potential to be very destructive.

This has been compounded by winds and hot, dry weather.

"The behavior is just too erratic," said Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, as the fire careened and turned back into already burned areas." It's going in every direction."

"We have planned for and trained for fires in every neighborhood," Smith said. "But this fire hit every neighborhood at once."

" Flames were licking at the units that were doing the evacuations," Smith said. "We have had evacuation crews on the run for almost 24 hours straight."

Gov. John Hickenlooper toured the scene Sunday morning. "This is the fire a lot of folks in Larimer County have always worried about," he said. "We are throwing everything at it that we can."

A map of the High Park fire’s burn area, as of Saturday night into Sunday morning, from the Larimer County Sheriff’s office.
A map of the High Park fire's burn area, as of Saturday night into Sunday morning, from the Larimer County Sheriff's office. (Click to enlarge)

Four helicopters and two air tankers dropped water and flame retardant, 250 firefighters and 15 engines worked on the ground.

There are no plans for containment at this point as firefighters focus on structure protection and evacuation, Smith said. "Those folks are doing everything they can, but Mother Nature is running this fire."

The fire is slated to receive a Type 1 designation Monday that will make it eligible for national resources, Christensen said.

The Colorado National Guard has two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters ready at the Loveland Airport in Fort Collins for a water bucket drop on the fire, said Captain Darin Overstreet, a guard spokesman.

Overstreet said the National Guard received an executive order from Gov. Hickenlooper and the Colorado Division of Emergency Management requesting their support with the High Park Fire relief efforts.

In addition to protecting homes and people, the fire crews are focused on protecting a field of communications towers on top of Buckhorn Mountain.

If the towers are lost it would cut off radio communication except for line-of-sight communications.

The site includes the transmitter for KUNC 91.5 FM, which has been off the air since Saturday.

The towers relay "all of the public safety communications in Larimer County," sheriff's spokesman John Schulz said.

"We don't want to be left high and dry if that gets taken out," Schulz said.

Jim Jackson, Red Feather District wildlife manager, answers questions from worried homeowners near the High Park Fire.
Jim Jackson, Red Feather District wildlife manager, answers questions from worried homeowners near the High Park Fire. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

At 14,000 acres, the High Park fire is almost as large as the 24-square-mile city of Boulder.

Evacuation centers have been set up at The Ranch, at Interstate 25 and Crossroads Boulevard, and Cache LaPoudre Middle School in Laporte.

Jim Smith, 52, his wife, two children and their three dogs were all at the middle school Sunday morning.

Smith said he has lived in his home on Spring Valley Road for 20 years and while he has seen six or eight large fires while living there, this is hottest and fastest moving.

Smith said he and his family evacuated their home before the official evacuation notice was issued at 4 p.m. after seeing how quickly the fire was moving from atop a nearby ridge.

"We got up (to Rist Canyon) around noon and it was burning good then," Smith said. "But by one o'clock it had exploded."

Rosemary Filano, 60, was chased from her home by a wall of flames that she said created a constant roar.

The Ranch evacuation center is also handling large animals and livestock. Smaller animals and pets are being cared for by the Larimer Humane Society.

The fire was reported around 6 a.m. Saturday as a 2-acre blaze in the Paradise Park area and blew up around noon. At 10 p.m. Saturday, the total acreage burned was estimated at 8,000, but overnight winds shifted and officials believe there was significant growth in the fire.

Fire fighters are working in steep, heavily wooded areas as well as meadows. Smith said the fire is behaving much more aggressively than normal, moving quickly through grasses and continuing a rapid spread during the night, when cooler temperatures typically help slow the progress of the flames.

The cause of the fire was undetermined. Smith said he hoped point-of-origin investigators could begin their work today.

Staff writer Tegan Hanlon contributed to this report.