BEULAH, Colo. – When Rich Pellecchia tried to return home after a weekend fishing trip, he and his wife discovered a fast-moving wildfire was engulfing 8,000 acres near their mountain neighborhood.
They spent four hours driving in their camper Sunday night trying to find a way home after officials closed roads and urged their neighbors to evacuate. Erratic winds and sweltering heat had caused the fire to nearly triple in size during the day.
"We have nothing but the clothes we've got on," Pellecchia said. "We didn't get a chance to get any of our things."
"All our pictures are still there," said his wife, Terri.
The blaze was threatening 750 houses, outbuildings and other structures in the town of Beulah and its surrounding ranching community, nestled in very dry terrain in the Wet Mountains (search) about 150 miles south of Denver. It was unclear how many people decided to leave.
About 5,000 people have been evacuated in Pueblo and Custer counties in southern Colorado since the lightning-sparked blaze was discovered Wednesday, said Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center (search) spokeswoman Jen Chase.
Evacuated residents were told to bring their horses, llamas and other livestock as well as dogs and cats to the grounds of the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo.
The fire was feeding on ponderosa pine and gambel oak, some of the most flammable wood in the West. The fire generated so much smoke at one point that aircraft weren't able to get close enough to drop retardant on its center.
No injuries had been reported and no homes had burned Sunday.
Cars and trucks packed with clothes, food and personal belongings were parked along a stretch of rural highway as evacuated residents from the Beulah Valley, about 25 miles southwest of Pueblo, watched black smoke rise from the mountainside and flames arch 150 feet into the sky.
"Three years ago during the drought, I pretty much made peace with the fact that we could lose it all," said Dave Van Manen, referring to devastating wildfires that engulfed parts of Colorado in 2002.
Spending his 29th wedding anniversary standing beside the asphalt of Colorado 78, his car stuffed with business files and other items, Van Manen said he was fully aware he could lose his house and office.
At least 60 residents who chose to leave their homes stopped by Grand View Baptist Church (search), located in an open meadow at the edge of Beulah, to get sandwiches, water and help finding places to stay.
About a dozen people sat in lawn chairs in the gravel parking lot watching the fire as heavy smoke covered the sun, making it look like a glowing red ball.
With ash falling on top of them, Rob Finkle and his family said they left behind a 12-acre property with a pond, waterfall, paved patio, 3,000-square-foot house and a barn finished this year.
Finkle said he would be pleasantly surprised if his home was still standing.
"You can replace a home. It's the trees - this is one of the most beautiful places in Colorado. It will take a hundred years to replace," he said.
More than 420 firefighters were working to contain the blaze aided by five helicopters, five single-engine air tankers, four heavy air tankers and 24 engines. Fighting the fire has cost about $1.1 million, Chase said.
Gov. Bill Owens (search) declared a state of emergency for the fire area Sunday and authorized the use of state emergency funds to help with fire fighting expenses.
On the west side of the fire in Custer County, evacuated residents were given four hours to visit their houses Sunday.
In the Greenwood area, on the northwest side of the fire, Sam Smith, 72, worked down a checklist of things he wanted to do at his house: grab his wife's billfold, close the windows, get clean socks, water the flowers and check the refrigerator.
"I am not worried about the house. It's insured," he said. "I built that house. I can build another."
In South Dakota, a wildfire that destroyed a house and a mobile home scorched at least 3,500 acres in the Piedmont area of the Black Hills, and officials indicate it has likely burned more.