COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — 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 official said Wednesday.
A separate Colorado wildfire to the south led to the evacuation of about 250 residents and nearly 1,000 inmates at medium-security prison, while to the north another fire burned in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Wildfires also were burning in New Mexico, Oregon and California, where a smokejumper 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 agency’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.
The smell of smoke and bits of ash 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.
Denver Broncos guard Ben Garland’s grandparents lost their home in that blaze and now live in a Black Forest neighborhood. They left their new home Tuesday, returned and were watching the fire 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, 28-year-old Luke Sheehy was fatally injured this week by part of a falling tree in Modoc National Forest. The Susanville, Calif., man 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 already have been evacuated. That fire was burning in a rugged mountainous area of dense forest.
About 60 miles southwest of Colorado’s Black Forest Fire, a 6-square-mile wildfire was burning near Royal Gorge Bridge Park, but winds were 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 is intact. It’s normally a tourist attraction, but firefighters are using it to access the fire.
More than 900 prisoners at a nearby medium-security prison, including murderers and rapists, were evacuated overnight because of heavy smoke from the blaze. The prisoners were transferred by bus and van, 200 at a time, throughout the night from the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, built in 1871. The prison also includes an infirmary, and some inmates use wheelchairs and canes.
“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 in the area Tuesday.
Near Colorado Springs, fire evacuees Greg and Sharon Rambo set up camp in a Wal-Mart 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 they 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.
Sharon Rambo said the wind shifted shortly after that call and ash began to pour from the sky. That’s when they left. As they described their predicament, the wind shifted again, and an enormous black plume of smoke suddenly shot up on the horizon behind the parking lot.
People came up and offered them pizza and water. “We’re all people. We all love each other,” Greg Rambo said.
Associated Press writers Steven K. Paulson and Ivan Moreno in Denver and AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton contributed to this report
NEVADA’S HELP ON THE WAY
The Nevada Division of Forestry sent two employees to help fight the Colorado wildfire Tuesday night, according to deputy administrator Dave Prather.
One employee will work as a type 1 incident commander to help “run the show,” according to Prather. The other will work as a food unit leader to set up catering and support for the crews.
Prather said the employees are from Las Vegas and Carson City and are expected to work a full two-week rotation due to the severity of the fire.
The division currently has active employees in California, Colorado and New Mexico as well.