COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. » The number of houses destroyed by a wildfire near Colorado Springs could grow to around 100, and authorities fear it’s possible that some people who stayed behind might have died.
Authorities initially estimated that between 40 and 60 houses were destroyed in Black Forest, a heavily wooded residential area northeast of Colorado Springs, but they are still surveying the damage. El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said today he believes around 80 have been lost and he wouldn’t be surprised if the figure reaches or tops 100.
Maketa said there are no reports of anyone missing in the fire, however he fears for 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.
Maketa said gusty winds expected later in the day could cause the fire to spread unpredictably.
The fire was one of several that broke out along Colorado’s Front Range Tuesday and quickly spread in high winds and record heat. The fire has burned about 12 square miles and forced the evacuation of more than 7,000 people in an area over 47 square miles. The area is not far from last summer’s devastating Waldo Canyon Fire that destroyed 346 homes and killed two.
"Everywhere you looked, you saw scattered fires, almost like there was a huge convention of campfires everywhere, and periodically you’d see trees just pop into a fireball," Maketa said.
Wildfires were also burning in New Mexico and California, where a smokejumper was killed fighting one of dozens of lightning-sparked fires. Luke Sheehy, of Susanville, Calif., was fatally injured by part of a falling tree in Modoc National Forest.
In Colorado, about 60 miles to the southwest of the Black Forest Fire, a 6-square-mile wildfire near Royal Gorge Bridge Park remains 0 percent contained this morning, but winds are pushing the fire away from Canon City and structures.
The Royal Gorge Fire has destroyed three structures near Canon City, but the soaring suspension bridge spanning a canyon across the Arkansas River appears undamaged.
The bridge has wood planking but is suspended by steel supports. It’s normally a tourist attraction but firefighters are now using it to access the fire.
More than 900 prisoners at the nearby Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility were taken to other prisons overnight because of the danger from heavy smoke, she said. The fire has not reached the prison, built in 1871 and the oldest in the state’s system.
"This was done as a precaution because it takes a lot of time to move the prisoners," Adrienne Jacobson said.
The medium- and low-risk prisoners were evacuated by bus, including 24 from an infirmary who were taken to a Denver facility, some in wheelchairs.
A third wildfire in southern Colorado erupted Tuesday in rural Huerfano County. The Klikus Fire had burned an estimated 45 to 50 acres west of La Veta, prompting evacuation orders for about 200 residences.
The causes of those fires weren’t immediately confirmed.
Another fire sparked by lightning Monday in Rocky Mountain National Park has now grown to an estimated 300 to 400 acres. No structures were threatened. Naturally started fires are usually allowed to burn in the park, but fire managers are working to suppress it because of drought conditions and reduced resources, park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said.
Cindy Winemiller, of Black Forest, was driving back from Austin, Texas, with her boyfriend after visiting her son when a friend called to tell them the forest was on fire. They saw the big plume of smoke from Pueblo, about 30 miles away. After arriving home, they gathered insurance information and a few photos but didn’t have time to get anything else because of the smoke and glow of the fire to the north.
"I’m hoping that it’s OK. Probably smoke damage, but who knows. The winds are picking up," Winemiller said today.
Last year she volunteered to help victims of the Waldo Canyon fire sift through the rubble and find personal belongings. Winemiller said she will do the same this time around "and hope it’s not my home."
Associated Press writer Steven K. Paulson in Denver contributed to this report.