A helicopter drops water on a wildfire near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Sunday. The fire erupted and grew out of control to more than 3 square miles early Sunday, prompting the evacuation of more than 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists. On Saturday, a blaze destroyed 21 structures near the mountain community of Estes Park. (AP/Bryan Oller)
Wildfires moved in on some of Colorado's most popular summer tourist destinations over the weekend, destroying 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 Saturday and grew out of control to more than 3 square miles (7.77 sq. kilometers) early Sunday, prompting the evacuation of more than 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists.
On Saturday, a blaze destroyed structures near the mountain community of Estes Park, where many visitors stay while visiting the park. The Larimer County Sheriff's Office said Sunday that 22 homes and 2 outbuildings had been burned.
The two fires are among eight burning in Colorado 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.
"We're used to flooding and tornadoes, nothing like this," said Amanda Rice, who recently moved to the area from Rock Falls, Illinois. Rice, her husband, four children and dog left a Manitou Springs hotel late Saturday.
Rice, scared when she saw flames, 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.
With Colorado midway through its worst wildfire season in a decade, travelers have seen some of their favorite sites closed to the public, obscured by smoke and haze. Some travelers were awoken with evacuation orders.
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 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, New Jersey, 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 two sons, 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.
Also on Sunday, a brushfire that began near Elbert, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Denver, quickly spread to about 60 acres (24 hectares), forcing the evacuation of about 100 residents.
Half the nation's firefighting fleet is now battling fires in Colorado, said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He said C-130 military transport planes from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs would begin assisting on Monday.
With eight wildfires burning — including a two week-old 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."