Winds, high temperatures fan Colorado wildfires

DENVER Sun Jun 17, 2012 11:05pm EDT

A huge plume of smoke rises from Colorado's High Park Fire, with dozens of homes visible in the foreground about 15 miles northwest of Fort Collins June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

A huge plume of smoke rises from Colorado's High Park Fire, with dozens of homes visible in the foreground about 15 miles northwest of Fort Collins June 11, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

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DENVER (Reuters) - Gusting winds and high temperatures hampered firefighters on Sunday as they battled to tame a record wildfire in northern Colorado that has charred more than 85 square miles (200 square km) and sent a plume of smoke billowing thousands of feet into the air.

The winds and smoke also grounded air support for firefighters battling the so-called High Park Fire raging for more than a week in mountain canyons 15 miles west of Fort Collins, fire spokesman Brett Haverstick said.

The lightning-sparked blaze has destroyed 181 homes since it was reported June 9, ranking it as the most destructive wildfire on record in Colorado.

It is also blamed for the death of a 62-year-old grandmother whose remains were found in the ashes of a mountain cabin where she lived alone.

More than 1,600 firefighters are on the scene of the fire which officials said has so far cost $11 million to fight. Smoke from the blaze was visible Sunday in Denver, 65 miles to the southeast.

Haverstick said that crews have cut a containment line around 45 percent of the blaze. Nevertheless, swirling winds and temperatures in the mid-90s have created spot fires ahead of the main blaze, he said, complicating suppression efforts.

There are more than 700 dwellings within the overall fire zone. Several hundred residents remain under evacuation on Sunday, although some who lost their homes were allowed back to survey the damage, the Larimer County Sheriff's Office said.

Police and National Guard troops are providing security around the burn area in an effort to prevent looting, the Colorado National Guard said in a statement.

Authorities arrested a man early Sunday morning with "phony firefighter credentials" for felony theft and impersonating a fire official, police said.

Michael Stillman Maher, 30, was spotted driving a vehicle inside the restricted fire zone with stolen government license plates, the sheriff's office said in a statement.

Maher was later apprehended at a local bar. A search of his car recovered stolen items and a firearm, police said.

Meanwhile, another wildfire fire erupted Sunday afternoon in the Pike National Forest in south-central Colorado, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Ralph Bellah.

The 200-acre (81 hectare) Springer Fire is growing quickly, forcing the mandatory evacuations of some 500 Boy Scouts camping in the area and several subdivisions, he said.

Hundreds of miles to the south in New Mexico, fire managers reported progress on a 60-square-mile wildfire burning in the Lincoln National Forest.

The Little Bear Fire has destroyed more than 220 homes and is now 60 percent contained, according to the federal fire incident command center.

(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Doina Chiacu)

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