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Firefighters try to corral Colorado blaze that’s destroyed 181 homes

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(CNN) — Firefighters continued their efforts Saturday, June 16th to corral more of a perilous Colorado blaze, following a week in which its flames have moved through forests and neighborhoods, forcing thousands of evacuations and leaving a trail of destruction.

“It will be some time before this fire is out, but our challenge now is to make sure we do everything to contain the damage,” said Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, in Fort Collins.

Vilsack addressed reporters shortly after touring the High Park Fire, which he noted is one of thousands currently burning nationwide. Red flag warnings, noting alarmingly high chances of wildfire activity, have been issued by the National Weather Service in nine states including Colorado.

At more than 54,000 acres burned, it is not the biggest — the agriculture secretary noted that he was heading next to New Mexico where the Whitewater Baldy complex has scorched more than 290,000 acres — but it has been under the spotlight for its speed and affect on people and property.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper held up a picture at Saturday afternoon’s press conference of the tree that he said was struck by lightning eight days earlier, the first spark for the mammoth blaze.

“It smouldered all day Friday, and it exploded (last) Saturday,” Hickenlooper said of the resulting fire.

First measured at two acres last Saturday morning, High Park Fire grew exponentially in the hours. At one point, it was advancing at 20 to 40 feet per second, with 15- to 20-foot flames common and some reaching as high as 300 feet, according to Nick Christensen of the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.

In recent days, the blaze jumped the Poudre River and was racing up a drainage area toward nearby neighborhoods.

Even then, fire authorities had been optimistic they would do more to control the blaze on Saturday, when it was 20% contained.

“This containment is expected to increase today,” read an update on InciWeb, the U.S. multiagency Incident Fire Response website.

Going forward, it doesn’t appear there will be much cooling or calming around Fort Collins and surrounding areas that would help those efforts. The National Weather Service forecast calls for high day-time temperatures in the mid-90s and breezy conditions, with gusts expected as strong as 25 mph, through Tuesday.

Hundreds of firefighters have arrived from across the United States to help local departments in the cause. In all, Inciweb reports 1,533 personnel are on site, employing 103 fire engines and 16 water tenders and numerous aircraft, including 16 helicopters.

Besides the still raging flames, an additional danger is presenting itself in the form of hungry and scared bears, officials said. Firefighters have been keeping their distance.

The fire has claimed one life, a 62-year-old woman found dead in her burned home earlier this week.

At least 181 homes have been destroyed by the fire, while about 3,000 evacuation notices have been sent out (some of which have been since recalled).

“It’s really not just a list of numbers; these are stories. Each one of these represents a family that’s been displaced from their home — that may have lost some family heirlooms, some photos, possessions, kids’ toys,” Christensen said. “It’s really devastating and sad.”

For all the damage inflicted, officials on Saturday praised the work of firefighters who — in Hickenlooper’s words — prevented it from being “100 times worse.”

“What I saw today was an extraordinary partnership,” Vilsack said after touring around the fire scene. “While it’s true we lost homes, we also saved thousands of homes and facilities.”

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