Colo. wildfire forces evacuation of 900 prisoners

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A US Army helicopter drops a load of water on a wildfire in the Black Forest area north of Colorado Springs, Colorado. (AP Photo)

A US Army helicopter drops a load of water on a wildfire in the Black Forest area north of Colorado Springs, Colorado. (AP Photo)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — A wildfire forced the evacuation of more than 900 prisoners at a state prison southwest of Colorado Springs early Wednesday, one of four blazes along Colorado’s Front Range that destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands of people to flee.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Adrienne Jacobson said prisoners from the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility were taken to other prisons overnight. The evacuation was ordered because of the danger from heavy smoke, she said. The fire has not reached the prison.

“This was done as a precaution because it takes a lot of time to move the prisoners,” 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.

That fire was burning on about 6 square miles near Royal Gorge Bridge Park. It has destroyed three structures near Canon City, but the soaring suspension bridge spanning the canyon across the Arkansas River is believed to have been spared.

The Black Forest Fire in a heavily wooded residential area northeast of Colorado Springs burned 40 to 60 houses after it broke out Tuesday and prompted evacuations of about 2,300 homes, affecting about 6,400 people, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said.

Six helicopters and an air tanker were on the scene, Maketa said. C-130 cargo planes were expected to be prepared to help fight the fire Wednesday, the office of Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said.

The area 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.

However, there were no immediate reports of injuries.

All of the fires moved quickly Tuesday, driven by record temperatures and strong winds. The conditions were making it difficult to build containment lines around the flames, and sparks jumped across them.

“Weather is not working with us right now, but our guys are giving it a heck of a shot,” Maketa said.

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.

A fourth wildfire sparked by lightning Monday in Rocky Mountain National Park quickly grew to an estimated 300 to 400 acres Tuesday. 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.

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