COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP/CBS4) – Wildfires moved in on some of Colorado’s most popular summer tourist destinations over the weekend, demolishing nearly two dozen homes near Rocky Mountain National Park and emptying hotels and campgrounds at the base of Pikes Peak.
A wildfire near Colorado Springs erupted and grew out of control to more than 3 square miles early Sunday, prompting the evacuation of more than 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists.
“The Waldo Canyon Fire on the Pike National Forest is a complex incident, and fire managers are working diligently to actively contain and suppress this fire with top consideration to protection of life, property, and natural resources. The overarching objective is to maintain the safety of the public and the firefighters who are battling this wildfire,” Jace Ratzlaff with the United States Department of Agriculture said in a statement.
Officials at the High Park Fire on Sunday night reported that there have been 57 more homes lost to the fire, bringing the total to 248. Fort-nine homes were destroyed in the Glacier Park subdivision and another four burned in the Deer Meadows area.
On Saturday, a blaze destroyed 24 structures near the mountain community of Estes Park, where many visitors stay while visiting the park.
All of this came just a week before the Fourth of July, a key time for family vacations to national parks and other destinations. A statewide ban on open campfires and private fireworks has been in place for more than a week.
With Colorado midway through its worst wildfire season in a decade, travelers have seen some of their favorite sites closed to the public, obscured by smoke and haze.
“We’re used to flooding and tornadoes, nothing like this,” said Amanda Rice of Rock Falls, Ill., who evacuated a Manitou Springs hotel late Saturday with her husband, four children and dog. Some travelers were awoken with evacuation orders. 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.
Plumes of gray and white smoke poured from the mountains Sunday, obscuring at times Pikes Peak, the most-summited high-elevation mountain in the nation and inspiration for the song “America The Beautiful.” Winds were pushing smoke away from Colorado Springs, but residents and tourists watched nervously as haze wrapped around the peak.
Families planning whitewater rafting trips or visits to the stunning red-rock formations in Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs were instead spending their vacations passing out bottled water and setting up cots in evacuee centers.
They included Mark Stein of Morristown, N.J., whose family arrived after midnight Sunday at their Manitou Springs hotel for a week of whitewater rafting and sightseeing.
“We were sleeping for 15 minutes when they started knocking on the door — a day from hell,” Stein said of the day of travel. With his wife and two sons, Stein spent the first night of his vacation setting up cots for more than 200 evacuees who slept at the school.
“I think it’s the best vacation ever. This is what the real world is about. There’s a lot of people that need help,” Stein said.
Also Sunday, a brushfire that began near Elbert, about 50 miles southwest of Denver, quickly spread to about 600 acres, forcing the evacuation of about 100 residents. It was 90 percent contained by 5 p.m.
Half the nation’s firefighting fleet is now battling fires in Colorado, said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He said C-130 military transport planes from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs would begin assisting on Monday.
Other fires burning in Colorado are as follows:
— Little Sand Fire near Pagosa Springs – 18,439 acres
— Weber Fire in Montezuma County – 6,500 acres
— Springer Fire near Lake George – 1,145 acres (100 percent contained on Sunday)
— Stateline Fire southeast of Durango – 337 acres
— Treasure Fire near Leadville – 300 acres
— Trout Creek Fire near Rainbow Falls in Douglas County – 25 acres
“People recognize this is going to take a big push” to extinguish, Hickenlooper said Sunday from a Colorado Springs grocery store, where volunteers were passing out burritos, sandwiches and drinks to 350 firefighters working near Pikes Peak.
The wildfire near Rocky Mountain National Park 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.”
Carolyn Baty and her husband, Darrell, vacationing from Fort Worth, Texas, were evacuated from their cabin Saturday afternoon.
“I smelled smoke coming from both directions, and then I heard the knock on the door,” Darrell Baty told The Denver Post.
Elsewhere in the West, firefighters made progress against wildfires in Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
— In Utah, a 12.5-square-mile blaze around Fountain Green in Sanpete County was threatening 200 homes in four rural subdivisions, forcing 800 people to 1,000 people to flee. BLM says the human-caused fire erupted Saturday afternoon and is 4 percent contained. Officials report progress on a 9-square-mile wildfire around Saratoga Springs, about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.
— In California, a wildfire about 60 miles north of Los Angeles triggered evacuations of campgrounds around an off-road recreation area on Saturday. Officials said the fire has blackened at least 1,000 acres in the Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area, along the Interstate 5 corridor in Gorman.
— In New Mexico, a lightning-caused wildfire that destroyed 242 homes and businesses is 90 percent contained. The 69-square-mile fire near Ruidoso began June 4. Meanwhile, the largest wildfire in state history was 87 percent contained, having burned more than 464 square miles after two blazes merged on May 16.
— In Arizona, the U.S. Forest Service said Sunday that containment against the Pecos Fire, just outside of Young, is up to 50 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.
– By THOMAS PEIPERT, Associated Press (CBS4 staff contributed to this report)
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