Dangerous wildfires spread to Colorado tourist centers

By Thomas Peipert

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 25 2012 10:03 a.m. MDT

The sun sets as seen from Lower Gold Camp Road as a wildfire continues to burn west of Colorado Springs, Colo. on Sunday, June 24, 2012. The fire erupted Saturday and grew out of control to more than 3 square miles early Sunday, prompting the evacuation of more than 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists.

Susannah Kay, Associated Press

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Flames forced thousands of Colorado residents from their homes over the weekend and disrupted vacation plans for countless visitors as smoke shrouded some of the state's top tourist destinations, including majestic Pike's Peak and tranquil Estes Park.

Colorado is having its worst wildfire season in a decade, with more than a half dozen forest fires burning across the state's parched terrain. Some hotels and campgrounds are emptying ahead of the busy Fourth of July holiday.

One of the newest fires, a blaze near Colorado Springs, grew to more than 5 square miles Sunday after erupting just a day earlier and prompting evacuation orders for 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists.

Officials had put the fire at 6 square miles but reduced the estimated Monday after more precise mapping.

Firefighters braced for hot temperatures and high winds on the fire lines.

On Sunday, the fire sent plumes of gray and white smoke over the area that obscured at times Pikes Peak, the most-summited high-elevation mountain in the nation and inspiration for the song "America The Beautiful."

Winds had started to push smoke away from Colorado Springs and evacuations orders were lifted for the 5,000 residents of nearby Manitou Springs, but area residents and tourists still watched nervously as haze wrapped around the peak.

"We're used to flooding and tornadoes, nothing like this," said Amanda Rice, who recently moved to the area from Rock Falls, Ill. Rice, her husband, four children and dog. They left a Manitou Springs hotel late Saturday.

Rice, scared when she saw flames, took her family to the evacuation center before she was told to go.

"It was just this God-awful orange glow. It was surreal. It honestly looked like hell was opening up," Rice said Sunday.

In Utah, hundreds of residents evacuated ahead of a 39-square-mile blaze that had destroyed at least some structures. Fire officials weren't sure how many were destroyed, or whether they were homes; sheriff's officials estimated late Sunday it could be as many as 30 structures.

Even while other large fires burn across the West, Colorado's blazes have demanded half the nation's firefighting fleet, according to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He said C-130 military transport planes from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs would begin assisting Monday.

"People recognize this is going to take a big push" to extinguish, Hickenlooper said Sunday from a Colorado Springs grocery store, where volunteers were passing out burritos, sandwiches and drinks to 350 firefighters working near Pikes Peak.

A statewide ban on open campfires and private fireworks has been in place for more than a week.

While no homes were reported damaged in the Colorado Springs-area fire, a forest fire near Rocky Mountain National Park destroyed structures near the mountain community of Estes Park. The Larimer County Sheriff's Office said Sunday that 22 homes and two outbuildings had been burned.

The Estes Park fire destroyed vacation cabins and closed the most commonly used entrance to the park. Clouds of smoke blew toward the 102-year-old Stanley Hotel that inspired Stephen King to write "The Shining."

Also over the weekend, residents of a subdivision near the northern Colorado city of Fort Collins learned that 57 more homes in their neighborhood had been lost to the High Park Fire, which already had claimed 191 homes, authorities said.

The High Park Fire is the second-largest wildfire and among the most expensive in Colorado's history. It has scorched more than 130 square miles and was just 45 percent contained on Sunday, The Denver Post reported.

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