COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – 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 evacuations of more than 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists. And on Saturday, a blaze destroyed 21 structures near the mountain community of Estes Park, where many visitors stay while visiting the national 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, summer 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 late Saturday, 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 from the evacuation center.
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 famed 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 12-year-old son, 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.
Half the nation's firefighting fleet is now battling fires in Colorado, said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He said military support in the form of C-130 military transport planes from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs would begin assisting on Monday.
With eight wildfires burning, including a fire that has scorched more than 118 square miles and destroyed at least 191 homes near Fort Collins, Colorado is having its worst wildfire season in a decade.
"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 said Baty told The Denver Post.
A separate fire burning near Fort Collins has scorched more than 118 square miles, destroying at least 191 homes. Though some evacuees were allowed home on Sunday, that blaze has become among the largest and most expensive in Colorado history.
Elsewhere in the West, firefighters made progress against wildfires in Utah, New Mexico and California.
— In Utah, crews are being hampered by high winds in their battle against a fast-moving wildfire in the central part of the state that forced some 800 people to flee their homes. The 12.5-square-mile blaze around the Sanpete County town of Fountain Green was threatening 200 homes in four rural subdivisions. BLM says the human-caused fire erupted late Saturday afternoon and is only 4 percent contained. Officials report progress on a 9-square-mile wildfire around Saratoga Springs, about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City, that had forced some 2,300 people to flee before returning to their homes.
— In California, a wildfire about 60 miles north of Los Angeles triggered evacuations of campgrounds around an off-road recreation area on Saturday. Ventura County fire 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. It has burned more than 464 square miles after two blazes merged on May 16.
— In Arizona, fire officials say containment is up on an eastern Arizona wildfire. The U.S. Forest Service said Sunday that containment against the Pecos Fire just outside of Young is up to 50 percent and remains just under 12,000 acres. Officials say many of the firefighting resources are being released to their home units or to other fire assignments within Arizona and New Mexico.