By Keith Coffman
FORT COLLINS, Colo. (Reuters) - A cool snap on Wednesday gave fire crews in northern Colorado a chance to take the offensive against a deadly wildfire that has scorched over 100 square miles of rugged mountain terrain north of Denver and ranks as the state's most destructive on record.
The so-called High Park Fire already is blamed for one death and has consumed 189 homes in the 12 days since it was ignited by lightning at the edge of the Roosevelt National Forest, and authorities say they expect property losses to climb when more damage assessments are made.
As of Wednesday, an estimated 1,000 homes remained evacuated on the western outskirts of Fort Collins, a city of more 140,000 people that lies adjacent to the national forest about 55 miles north of Denver.
At the Larimer County Fairgrounds in Loveland, just southeast of Fort Collins, a shelter for displaced residents and livestock teemed with activity Wednesday afternoon.
One of the evacuees there, Sue Weber, said she has been out of her home for more than a week but has heard from authorities that her house was still intact.
"I'm OK, but there is a lot of anxiety from being around people who have lost everything," she said.
"My husband and I moved here from upstate New York three years ago, where you're more likely to mold to death instead of burn to death," she added with a laugh. "You have to laugh. It's better than crying."
Twenty miles away amid the charred hillsides of Poudre Canyon, the foundation of a house was all that remained of a property consumed by fire when wind-stoked flames swept through the area 10 days ago. The smell of burned wood still hung heavy in the air.
The only casualty reported from the fire so far was a 62-year-old grandmother whose body was found last week in the ashes of a cabin where she lived alone. She was the fourth person to die in a Colorado wildfire this year.
The High Park blaze grew in size by several thousand acres overnight and Wednesday, extending to more than 68,000 acres, or more than 106 square miles (275 square km).
But with air temperatures falling and expected to remain relatively cool for the next two days, fire managers said they would go on the attack.
"Today we're going to be aggressive," incident commander Bill Hahnenberg said. So far, a contingent of several hundred firefighters had managed to carve containment lines around 55 percent of the fire's perimeter.
The blaze was one of the biggest - and most threatening - of 16 large wildfires being fought across the country on Wednesday. Most were in seven Western states - Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Utah, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, reported.
Although federal authorities say the fire season has gotten off to an early start this summer in parts of the Northern Rockies, the number of fires and acreage burned nationwide is still well below the 10-year average for this time of year, according to fire agency records.
In a reminder that even relatively small fires can cause significant upheaval, a 450-acre (182-hectare) blaze burning near the town of Lake Isabella, nestled within the Sequoia National Forest in California, prompted the evacuation of about 160 homes and cabins, as well as the Hungry Gulch campground near Sequoia National Park.
But Forest Service officials say that blaze is more than 35 percent contained and no structures have been damaged.
An even smaller was reported on Tuesday to have destroyed six houses and five outbuildings near Mountain Home, Idaho, some 40 miles southeast of Boise.
(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Trott and Christopher Wilson)