FORT COLLINS, Colorado -- The High Park Fire has hopscotched, scorched and charred through more than 100 square miles since it began June 9, destroying almost 200 homes.
For the first time, reporters were allowed access behind road closures so they could show the public what happened. It isn't pretty. The fire destroyed a blue single-story home across from the entrance to Picnic Rock State Park, leaving little but a foundation and a tangle of debris. But a few yards east, a white pickup truck sat untouched.
Grasses and trees are blackened and burned in front of the house, but a large satellite dish to the west appeared unharmed. Just north of the mouth of Poudre Canyon entrance, the fire destroyed another house despite firefighters' efforts to stop the blaze in that area.
"Unfortunately, the fire got ahead of us," said Poudre Fire Authority spokesman Capt. Patrick Love, who led the tour Wednesday. "It was not only difficult to see, but the fire was spreading quickly. We were outstripped."
A reporter and photographer flew over the burn area Tuesday afternoon and saw large unburned areas within the main fire perimeter, in some places looking like tiger stripes or leopard spots.
And on Wednesday's tour, Love pointed out how the south side of the Picnic Rock area was relatively unscathed and still covered with vegetation that Love said potentially could reignite. "And then we're off to the races again," Love said, referring to the possibility of a new fire breaking out.
The tour included only two areas where residents had been allowed to return and did not encompass the hardest-hit areas where most of the 189 homes were destroyed and a woman was killed in her cabin before she could escape the flames.
"It's going to be years before this area returns to the way it was," said John Schulz, a spokesman for the Larimer County Sheriff, while standing on the grounds of the untouched Gateway Park Natural Area. "While it will be different, we hope we'll still be able to offer a good experience for our visitors and our residents. But it will be a different experience." Wildlife also will be affected for years to come.
Most birds and mammals, except those too young or too old to flee, have been able to travel to less intense areas, said Mark Vieira, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist. They likely will return when new grasses sprout from the ashes. But fish face big challenges: At first, fish are threatened with the heat of the fire itself. Next comes the slurry firefighters drop from the air to douse the blaze.
Finally, following the blaze, ash and large amounts of sediment flow into streams. Ash can clog a fish's gills, said Randy Hampton, a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Stream health also affects the ability of insects, food for the fish, to breed.
Almost 2,000 firefighters are working to battle the blaze, which is considered 55 percent contained. Now officials want to keep unscathed sections within the burn area from igniting. Costs are approaching $20 million.
By TREVOR HUGHES, Fort Collins Coloradoan