U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, right, thanks firefighters at a news conference in Fort Collins after visiting the site of the High Park fire
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, right, thanks firefighters at a news conference in Fort Collins after visiting the site of the High Park fire Saturday. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

When Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday declared the High Park fire a disaster, he dipped into an emergency reserve fund to free $20 million to fight the blaze.

State budget director Henry Sobanet said the disaster declaration gave Hickenlooper the ability to move money from existing budgets over to the disaster fund.

Most of the money was moved from an emergency reserve fund kept under the TABOR law — $12 million came from a workers' compensation premium-surcharge fund and $8 million from unspent water- project money.

"We're at the end of the fiscal year, and most of the budgets are nearly depleted," Sobanet said, adding that they'll have more flexibility July 1, when the new budget year begins.

"If there's another fire, or this fire needs more money, we would go to another place but haven't looked that far ahead yet," Sobanet said.

As of Saturday, about $10.8 million had been spent fighting the High Park fire, which has burned 55,050 acres and is the most destructive fire in recorded Colorado history in terms of homes burned.

The Lower North Fork fire near Conifer earlier this year cost about $6 million.

If all of the disaster fund isn't needed, the leftover money will be returned to the pots it was pulled from, Sobanet said.

"We expect to get reimbursed, as well, for a portion of the fire costs, but we don't know how much yet," he said.

On Saturday, fire managers said 181 homes had been burned, and the toll could move higher as structure-assessment teams complete their work.

The High Park fire, which is about 20 percent contained, is the third-largest wildfire in Colorado history. The Missionary Ridge fire is second, burning almost 71,739 acres in Durango in 2002. Hayman is the largest, burning 137,760 acres west of Colorado Springs, also in 2002.

Erin Udell: 303-954-1223 or eudell@denverpost.com