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Colorado wildfire claims first victim; governor declares disaster

June 12, 2012|By Laura J. Nelson

Colorado’s governor declared a state of disaster Tuesday in the face of a raging forest fire near Fort Collins, allocating $20 million in funding and the use of the Colorado National Guard to help fight what is now the third-largest fire in state history.

“The High Park fire’s proximity to numerous homes, property and critical infrastructure poses an imminent danger to life and property,” Gov. John Hickenlooper wrote in an executive order.

On Monday, authorities found the body of Linda Steadman, 62, in the ashes of her remote cabin on the edge of the Roosevelt National Forest.  Steadman's death, the first in the High Park fire, is the state’s fourth wildfire fatality this year.

Fire crews continued to make incremental progress against the wildfire, which was 5% contained on Tuesday afternoon, according to official reports. More than 500 people are fighting the blaze, which has swallowed more than 68 square miles of national forest and 100 buildings, officials said.

“This fire has been so unpredictable, and it’s in part because of so many wind shifts,” Reghan Cloudman, a High Park fire spokeswoman, told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re in June and already getting the dryness we usually see in August.”

Officials hope the fire will be 10% contained by the end of Tuesday, if conditions don’t worsen. Flames have been fanned by strong winds, low humidity and unseasonable drought.

The fire’s western side is burning dangerously hot and close to dry areas that will become tinder should the fire spread, Cloudman said. A mountain pine beetle epidemic has left many Colorado forests “red and dead” – extremely flammable, with gray trunks and  dry needles – and spring droughts have weakened others.

The thickest trees currently hold about 60% moisture. Usually in June, that number is closer to 90%, Cloudman said.

Hundreds of miles south in New Mexico, the Little Bear fire that has claimed more than 56 square miles of land is now 30% contained, according to official reports. The northern and eastern edges of the fire are contained, officials said, but nearly 1,000 crew members continue to battle the southern edge of the fire near Ruidoso, N.M.

The 8,500 people living in Ruidoso have not yet left, authorities said, but several subdivisions at the northern tip of the city are on alert.

“It’s still very hot and active, because the winds are coming from the north, pushing everything south,” Sean Parker, deputy village manager, told The Times. “We’re holding, but it wants to keep burning really bad.”

The challenge for firefighters will be continuing to make progress after Tuesday’s favorable conditions burn off overnight, Parker said. Temperatures are expected to rise into the mid-80s, and humidity is expected to drop.

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Join Laura J. Nelson on Twitter. Email: laura.nelson@latimes.com

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