COLORADO SPRINGS – A wildfire fueled by hot temperatures, gusty winds and thick, bone-dry forests has destroyed 92 homes, damaged five more and prompted more than 7,000 residents northeast of Colorado Springs to flee, sheriff’s officials said Wednesday.
A separate Colorado wildfire to the south has destroyed 20 structures, including some in Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, and prompted evacuations of about 250 residents and nearly 1,000 inmates at a medium-security prison. To the north, another fire burned in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Wildfires also were burning in New Mexico, Oregon and California, where a smoke jumper was killed fighting one of dozens of lightning-sparked fires.
Crews were so busy battling blazes across the West that the U.S. Forest Service said Wednesday it was mobilizing a pair of Defense Department cargo planes to help – a step taken only when all of the Forest Service’s contracted tankers already are in use.
The fire near Colorado Springs, one of several that broke out Tuesday along Colorado’s Front Range, has prompted evacuation orders and pre-evacuation notices to between 9,000 and 9,500 people and about 3,500 homes and businesses, sheriff’s officials said.
Some Colorado Springs residents were warned to be ready to evacuate, mostly because of a fear of flying embers spreading the fire into the state’s second-largest city. Sheriff’s officials also evacuated part of neighboring Elbert County, including two camps with a total of about 1,250 children and adults.
Bits of ash and the smell of smoke drifted into Denver, about 60 miles to the north, where the haze blocked the sun.
No injuries or deaths have been reported, but El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said officials were trying to confirm the whereabouts of one person reported missing Wednesday. Firefighters tried to go where the person was last seen but were turned back twice because it was too hot, he said.
Maketa said he was worried about those who chose to ignore evacuation orders and stay behind.
“One of my worst fears is that people took their chances and it may have cost them their life,” he said.
The area is not far from last summer’s Waldo Canyon Fire that destroyed 346 homes and killed two people.
Denver Broncos guard Ben Garland’s grandparents lost their home in that blaze and now live in a Black Forest neighborhood. Smoke billowed near their new home Wednesday.
“It’s tough. It was tough going through it the first time,” Garland said. “I know the first time, we didn’t take it as seriously. We just thought it’d pass over and the firefighters would take care of it. The second time, it was really scary, and they packed up real quick and got ready to go.”
The Forest Service mobilized specially equipped Defense Department C-130s to drop slurry on wildfires in the West after all 12 of its air tankers were deployed. At least one was fighting the Black Forest Fire.
By law, the Modular Airborne Firefighting System – MAFFS – planes can be deployed only when all of the Forest Service’s contracted tankers are in use. Around this time last year, the aircraft sat on runways when massive wildfires burned in Colorado and New Mexico.
In northeast California, Luke Sheehy was fatally injured this week by part of a falling tree in Modoc National Forest. The 28-year-old from Susanville, Calif., was a member of the Redding-based California Smokejumpers – firefighters who parachute into remote areas from airplanes.
In New Mexico, a wildfire burning in the steep, narrow canyons of the Pecos Wilderness north of Santa Fe grew to more than 12 square miles Wednesday. It was burning about 10 miles southeast of some small communities. Crews planned to build fire lines and clear out fuel in key areas miles ahead of the blaze in hopes of protecting the communities if the fire heads that way.
In southwestern New Mexico, firefighters were trying to keep a massive wildfire from reaching an old mining town whose 45 or so residents have been evacuated. That fire was burning in a mountainous area of dense forest.
About 60 miles southwest of Colorado’s Black Forest Fire, a 4.5-square-mile wildfire that evacuated Royal Gorge Bridge & Park has destroyed 20 structures, including some in the park, but the park’s animals are all right.
The soaring Royal Gorge suspension bridge spanning a canyon across the Arkansas River has fire damage to 32 of its 1,292 wooden planks, city officials said. An aerial tram car and tram buildings on either side of the gorge were destroyed, and the tram cable dropped into the canyon. An incline railway that descends 1,500 feet to the canyon floor was damaged.
More than 900 prisoners at a nearby medium-security prison, including murderers and rapists, were evacuated overnight because of heavy smoke. The prisoners were transferred by bus and van, 200 at a time, throughout the night.
“This was done as a precaution because it takes a lot of time to move the prisoners,” Department of Corrections spokeswoman Adrienne Jacobson said.
Another fire sparked by lightning Monday in Rocky Mountain National Park has grown to an estimated 400 acres in area with trees killed by pine beetles.
The cause of the fire near Colorado Springs wasn’t clear. The El Paso County sheriff said there were no reports of lightning Tuesday.
Jaenette Coyne was among those who initially called 911 to report smoke behind her home. She quickly decided she needed to get out.
“We had five minutes to leave before the flames were too close. We left with nothing,” she said.
From a fire station, she and her husband watched on television as flames engulfed the house where they have lived since 2009.
“I don’t know how to tell you in words what it felt like,” she said. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever felt in my whole life.”
She said their 20-month-old daughter has been asking when the family can go home and see their three cats, which likely died in the fire.
“What do you do when you’ve lost everything?” she said.
Meanwhile, fire evacuees Greg and Sharon Rambo set up camp in a Walmart and Home Depot parking lot. They were living in a modular home in Black Forest as they waited to close on a larger house nearby. They believe both were burned.
“It leaves you feeling numb, loss of appetite, disoriented,” Greg Rambo said.
The couple previously lived in Southern California and were evacuated during a 2004 blaze that hopscotched over their property without damaging it. Since then, they have carried a briefcase filled with medications and important documents, and kept their trailer far from their house so they’d have a place to sleep in the event their home burns down.
Their daughter, who lives nearby, called them Tuesday afternoon and urged them to flee. They do not know if her house also burned.
Gov. John Hickenlooper declared disaster emergencies Wednesday for the Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires and a 60-acre fire in rural Huerfano County, authorizing a combined $10.15 million to help pay for firefighting and other costs.