POSTED: 6:53 a.m. HST, Jun 25, 2012
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 estimate today 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 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.
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.
Elsewhere, firefighters contended with windy and heat as they battled wildfires in Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
>> Also in Utah, officials report progress on a 9-square-mile wildfire around Saratoga Springs, about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.
>> In Montana, two wildfires were burning in the southwest part of the state, including the fast-moving Antelope Fire, which started Saturday afternoon about 10 miles north of Whitehall and had grown to 462 acres on Sunday. About 100 firefighters were battling that blaze.
>> In Arizona, the U.S. Forest Service said late Sunday that containment against the Poco Fire, just outside of Young, is up to 65 percent and remains under 12,000 acres. Officials say many of the firefighting resources are being released to their home units or to other fire assignments.