By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - An 85-square-mile (220-square-km) wildfire raging out of control for a week in northern Colorado has destroyed 181 homes, ranking it as the most destructive blaze in state history, fire officials said on Saturday.
The so-called High Park Fire, ignited by lightning in steep mountain terrain 15 miles northwest of Fort Collins, and about 65 miles northwest of Denver, has already been blamed for one death, and the toll of property damage is expected to climb.
"The number of structures lost will be much larger," said Nick Christensen, spokesman for the Larimer County Sheriff's Office.
There are more than 700 dwellings within the overall fire zone, Christensen said, and firefighters have managed to save most of them.
Hundreds of residents displaced by the fire remain out of their homes, but authorities have slowly been reopening certain neighborhoods deemed safe by assessment crews.
"It's a painstaking process," Christensen said.
Before Saturday, fire officials had put the estimated property losses from the blaze at roughly 100 structures, including an undetermined number of homes.
The new tally of 181 homes destroyed by the blaze since it erupted last Saturday surpasses the 169 total from a 2010 fire above Boulder. With 54,232 acres charred so far, the High Park is the third-largest wildfire on record in Colorado.
The lone casualty reported from the fire was a 62-year-old grandmother whose remains were found in the ashes of the cabin where she lived alone. She became the fourth fatality in a Colorado wildfire this year.
In addition to the difficult terrain, extreme heat and at times erratic winds, firefighters have encountered prowling black bears flushed out by smoke and flames, fire spokesman Brett Haberstick said, adding that crews were told to give the bears a wide berth.
The 1,600 firefighters battling the flames from the ground and air had a relatively good day on Saturday because of cooler temperatures and higher humidity values, said incident commander Bill Hahnenberg.
But weather forecasts calling for hotter temperatures and higher winds over the next several days will present further challenges, he said.
FULL CONTAINMENT WEEKS AWAY
Flames from a 200-acre (80-hectare) spot fire jumped a natural firebreak at the Cache la Poudre River on Thursday night, but crews deployed to the area made a stand and prevented the flames from roaring through a canyon into a 1,000-home subdivision, Hahnenberg said.
Crews have cut containment lines around 20 percent of the High Park Fire's perimeter, mostly along the more heavily populated eastern flanks of the blaze, he said.
Full containment of the fire is still weeks away, Hahnenberg said, and the fire is not expected to be extinguished until the autumn when snows return to the high country.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department includes the U.S. Forest Service, toured the fire zone on Saturday with Governor John Hickenlooper and members of the state's congressional delegation.
The High Park fire has burned a combination of private lands and portions of the Roosevelt National Forest.
Vilsack said federal authorities were looking to confront forest management issues posed by the 2012 fire season, particularly in the mountain West where vast stands of beetle-killed timber has helped fuel many wildfires, and the potential for flash flooding from mountainsides denuded by fire.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)