Colorado fires burn homes, force thousands to flee

12:16 AM, Jun 13, 2013   |    comments
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(USA Today) BLACK FOREST, Colo. - Four wildfires burning across the state Wednesday have destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands to evacuate, including 900 inmates from a state prison.

One fire might affect plans for a temporary art installation along the Arkansas River in south-central Colorado that has been envisioned by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Near Colorado Springs, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said Wednesday afternoon that the Black Forest Fire had destroyed 92 homes and damaged five others. Flames were jumping fire lines and burning uncontrolled over about 48 square miles.

"The fire has doubled back, and homes we identified as standing, are now engulfed," Maketa said. "The potential for this fire to spread is extreme."

Maketa said that about 3,400 homes and 9,500 people had been evacuated by early evening and that between 8,500 and 12,000 acres had burned since the blaze began Tuesday. Strong southerly winds were rapidly expanding the fire's northern edge, The Gazette reported. Firefighters had to be pulled back to safety, and five air tankers were called in.

There were no immediate reports of injuries among residents or the nearly 500 firefighters on the scene. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

The Black Forest area, named for its thick growth of Ponderosa Pines, is not far from last summer's devastating Waldo Canyon Fire that destroyed 346 homes and killed two.

"It's very, very reminiscent of what we experienced in Waldo Canyon," Maketa said.

The fire was one of several burning across the state, including one near Royal Gorge Bridge that had destroyed three structures, burned 3,800 acres and forced the evacuation of inmates from "Old Max," the Territorial Prison in Cañon City.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Adrienne Jacobson said inmates were taken to other prisons overnight as a precaution because of the danger from heavy smoke. The fire had not reached the prison.

Some highways were closed amid flames reported as high as 30 feet. Evacuations were underway.

"The wildfire is still creating some havoc," said Bob Wilson, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation told The Gazette.

"It's moving really quick," Brandi Grandon, 43, told The Gazette as she prepared to evacuate her home a half mile from the nearest flames. "This is horrifying."

The Arkansas River is closed from Spike Buck to Canon City, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said, and the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park were evacuated. The fire started on the south side of the river and is now burning both sides.

It is too early to know whether the wildfire will affect or alter the grand-but-temporary art installation that Christo has been planning for several years along the Arkansas River between Salida and Canon City.

His Over The River creation, which he conceived with his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, is to involve suspending 5.9 miles of silvery, translucent fabric panels along the 42-mile stretch of the river for two weeks. The panels "will be suspended at eight distinct areas of the river that have been selected by the artists for their aesthetic merits and technical viability," the artists stated in their FAQ.

Work was to have begun in February, but Christo announced last July that he would delay the installation until lawsuits and appeals by opponents were settled. USA TODAY is seeking comment from the artist.

Christo's other famous works include a fabric fence along the Pacific coast hills north of San Francisco in 1976; wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin with fabric in 1995; and 7,503 saffron-colored cloth gates in New York's Central Park in 2005.

Also Wednesday:

• A lightning-caused wildfire burning on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Parkthat sent heavy smoke across Fort Collins.

Two hikers were helicoptered out of the park and campgrounds were evacuated from the Big Meadows Fire, which officials said had burned 400 acres and had potential for "extreme" growth, The Coloradoan reported.

The blaze, which is being fueled by high winds, low humidity and dead trees, is burning about 45 miles southwest of Fort Collins.

• A wildfire that 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.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed disaster declarations that freed up $10.5 million for three fires: $5.5 million for the Black Forest blaze, $4.5 million for the Royal Gorge fire and $150,000 for the Klickus Fire.

Raquel Villanueva reports for KUSA-TV in Denver. Contributing: The Coloradoan in Fort Collins; Associated Press.

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