(Adds details on evacuations and locations of fire)
By Keith Coffman
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., June 12 A wind-whipped
Colorado wildfire menaced the state's second-largest city on
Wednesday, forcing thousands of residents to flee flames and
choking smoke and ruining between 80 and 100 homes in a wooded
subdivision since it erupted a day earlier.
The fast-moving blaze was raging uncontrolled about 15 miles
(24 km) northeast of Colorado Springs, and could soon threaten
more homes if winds increase as expected later on Wednesday
afternoon, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa told reporters.
The blaze, which erupted on Tuesday and quickly ripped
through Colorado's Black Forest, comes as firefighters in the
U.S. West worry that entrenched drought conditions could lead to
a more intense fire season, particularly in California.
"It's a very hot, very active, difficult fire" said Dave
Rose, spokesman for El Paso County, where the so-called Black
Forest Fire was burning about 30 miles (48 km) away from where
another massive blaze destroyed hundreds of homes on the
outskirts of Colorado Springs less than a year ago.
"Unfortunately, the wind's starting to pick back up again,
and so the wind will blow the fire back into areas that are
still rich with fuel" in the form of trees, Rose said.
Another fire in a neighboring county on Tuesday forced the
closure of one of the state's top tourist attractions and the
evacuation overnight of more than 900 inmates from a prison.
Maketa said the Black Forest blaze quickly reached a
residential community near Colorado Springs, where it destroyed
between 80 and 100 homes and an unknown number of outbuildings.
Evacuation notices went out to 2,600 homes housing 7,300
people, and Army National Guard troops have been deployed to
help police prevent looting. The smell of smoke hung in the air
in areas 30 miles (48 km) away from the blaze.
Maketa compared the fire to Colorado's most destructive
wildfire, the so-called Waldo Canyon Fire, which killed two
local residents and reduced about 350 homes to ashes last June.
More than 30,000 people in the area had been under mandatory
evacuation orders during that fire.
Firefighters have been unable to create any containment
lines around the Black Forest fire, which Maketa said was
estimated to cover an area of 7,500 to 8,000 acres (3,035 to
3,240 hectares). No injuries have been reported.
The blaze was especially intense at its northern flank,
where trees were engulfed in a wall of flames that flared from
ground-level to the tops of the canopies. A large air tanker
could be seen making passes over the blaze dropping payloads of
Colorado Springs is located between the foothills of the
Rocky Mountains on the west and the edge of the Great Plains on
the east. The other Colorado fire, 50 miles (80 km) to the
southwest in neighboring Fremont County, also broke out on
Tuesday and quickly spread to 3,800 acres (1,540 hectares).
That blaze prompted the evacuation of the Royal Gorge Bridge
& Park, whose span is billed as the world's highest suspension
bridge, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said in a statement.
The bridge, which was not directly threatened by flames,
stretches nearly 1,000 feet (300 meters) above the Arkansas
River for a quarter-mile and is one of Colorado's most visible
tourist destinations. Fire managers said the river was closed to
The fire near the river prompted the evacuation of 905
prisoners overnight from the Colorado Territorial Correctional
Facility in Canon City to other prisons as a precautionary
measure, said state corrections spokeswoman Alison Morgan.
She said the fire had not reached the prison, which houses
many inmates with mental health and other medical needs
The fires came as the U.S. Drought Monitor says that nearly
16 percent of Colorado suffers from "exceptional" drought
conditions - the most severe rating possible - while over 26
percent of the state is in the "extreme" category.
The National Weather Service said single-digit humidity
values and temperatures in the upper 90s Fahrenheit (upper 30s
Celsius), combined with wind gusts in excess of 40 miles (65 km)
an hour have created "very high to extreme fire danger" in
Colorado for most of the week.
Investigators were seeking the cause of both fires.
(Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins and Laura Zuckerman;
Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by James Dalgleish, Cynthia
Johnston and Carol Bishopric)