COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The number of houses destroyed by a wildfire near Colorado Springs could grow to around 100, and authorities fear it’s possible that some people who stayed behind might have died.
Authorities initially estimated that between 40 and 60 houses were destroyed in Black Forest, a heavily wooded residential area northeast of Colorado Springs, but they are still surveying the damage. El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said Wednesday he believes around 80 have been lost and he wouldn’t be surprised if the figure reaches or tops 100.
Maketa said there are no reports of anyone missing in the fire, however he fears for those who chose to ignore evacuation orders and stay behind.
“One of my worst fears is that people took their chances and it may have cost them their life,” he said.
The fire has burned about 12 square miles and forced the evacuation of more than 7,000 people in an area over 47 square miles. The area is not far from last summer’s devastating Waldo Canyon Fire that destroyed 346 homes and killed two.
Maketa said gusty winds expected later in the day could cause the fire to spread unpredictably.
The fire was one of several that broke out along Colorado’s Front Range Tuesday and quickly spread in high winds and record heat.
“Everywhere you looked, you saw scattered fires, almost like there was a huge convention of campfires everywhere, and periodically you’d see trees just pop into a fireball,” Maketa said.
About 60 miles to the southwest, a 6-square-mile wildfire near Royal Gorge Bridge Park remains 0 percent contained Wednesday morning, but winds are pushing the fire away from Canon City and structures.
The Royal Gorge Fire has destroyed three structures near Canon City, but the soaring suspension bridge spanning a canyon across the Arkansas River appears undamaged.
The bridge has wood planking but is suspended by steel supports. It’s normally a tourist attraction but firefighters are now using it to access the fire.
More than 900 prisoners at the nearby Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility were taken to other prisons overnight because of the danger from heavy smoke, she said. The fire has not reached the prison, built in 1871 and the oldest in the state’s system.
“This was done as a precaution because it takes a lot of time to move the prisoners,” Adrienne Jacobson said.
The medium- and low-risk prisoners were evacuated by bus, including 24 from an infirmary who were taken to a Denver facility, some in wheelchairs.
A third wildfire in southern Colorado 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.
The causes of those fires weren’t immediately confirmed.
Another fire sparked by lightning Monday in Rocky Mountain National Park has now grown to an estimated 300 to 400 acres. No structures were threatened. Naturally started fires are usually allowed to burn in the park, but fire managers are working to suppress it because of drought conditions and reduced resources, park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said.
In the Colorado Springs area, George Gonzales, 74, and his wife stayed in their motorhome in the parking lot of a Red Cross shelter set up for evacuees from the Black Forest Fire. He said the two were eating lunch in town when his daughter got an alert on her phone about the fire and called them.
An officer let them go home to retrieve their dogs, their motorhome and truck, and his heart medicine, George Gonzales said.
“Sure, we’re worried, but we’re hoping for the best,” he said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized federal funds to defray costs of fighting the Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires.
“There is nobody backing away and saying we’re not going to attack this with everything that we’ve got,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said late Tuesday.
Associated Press writer Steven K. Paulson in Denver contributed to this report.