The evening sky glows orange as smoke and flames from the Waldo Canyon Fire has consumed 2500 acres west of Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs, Colo. on Saturday, June 23, 2012. The fire is zero percent contained. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations were taking place across the west side of Colorado Springs. Tankers were dropping fire retardant in front of the advancing flames. ( AP Photo/Bryan Oller)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — A wildfire near Colorado Springs erupted and grew out of control to more than 3 square miles over the weekend, prompting the evacuation of a popular vacation town and the closure of nearby highways Sunday.
At least 11,000 residents of the town of Manitou Springs and nearby communities of Cascade, Chipita Park and Green Mountain Falls were ordered to leave Saturday or early Sunday. The fire quickly grew to more than 2,000 acres amid tinder dry conditions, gusty winds and temperatures that reached into the 90s.
Officials didn't immediately have a count on those evacuated from campgrounds, inns, rental cabins and other vacation properties that were emptied, but an evacuation center set up at a high school housed mostly tourists.
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 100 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.
The fire also prompted evacuations for the west side of Colorado Springs and in the towns of Cascade and Ute Pass, but no structures have been destroyed and no buildings were under immediate threat.
The Garden of the Gods park, which has dramatic red rock formations, was also closed. Pikes Peak, the most-visited high-altitude peak in the nation that inspired the song "America The Beautiful," was completely obscured by gray smoke.
Officials closed traffic into Manitou Springs, a vacation town at the base of Pikes Peak, and shut down the Pikes Peak Highway, which goes to the top of the mountain.
Hundreds of other residents were under voluntary evacuation orders and were packing up, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported Saturday.
About 350 firefighters were dispatched to the blaze, with more in the way, said Rob Deyerberg of the Fairmount Fire Protection District. But the fire was still zero percent contained. A plume of smoke from the foothills near Pikes Peak thickened and turned from light gray to brown.
Conditions remained dry and windy Sunday, and the National Weather Service said temperatures were forecast to be close to 100 degrees throughout much of the state.
Gov. John Hickenlooper said two C-130 military transport planes from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs would assist fighting the fire on Monday. With eight separate wildfire burning across Colorado, Hickenlooper said half the nation's firefighting resources were in the state but that it will take time to put out the blazes.
"People recognize this going to take a big push," Hickenlooper said.
Colorado and other parts of the Southwest have become a tinderbox for wildfires as the region faces extremely dry or prolonged drought conditions. At least seven were burning across the state, where officials have been challenged by one of the most severe fire seasons in recent memory.
The weather also helped fuel another blaze that sparked Saturday and destroyed 21 structures near the mountain community of Estes Park. Investigators were determining whether it started in a cabin or as a wildfire before moving toward the homes, according to the Denver Post.
"Even though we lost 21 (structures), which is a huge tragedy, we saved many homes because of firefighters' efforts," Estes Park Fire Chief Scott Dorman told evacuees.
A separate fire continued burning near Fort Collins, scorching more than 118 square miles and destroying at least 191 homes.
Elsewhere in the West, firefighters made progress against wildfires in Utah, New Mexico and California.
— In Utah, about 2,300 residents were allowed to return to their homes Saturday after officials determined a wildfire no longer posed a threat to homes near Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain. Officials believe that fire was started Thursday by target shooters. A second major fire has burned 16,500-acres of high desert near the central Utah town of Delta.
— 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 400 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 after heavy rain helped crews Friday. 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.