COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - A pair of U.S. Defense Department cargo planes was mobilized Wednesday to help battle wildfires in Colorado and elsewhere in the West as crews surveyed the damage from a large blaze burning near Colorado Springs that already has destroyed dozens of homes.
Authorities initially estimated between 40 and 60 houses burned in Black Forest, a heavily wooded residential area northeast of Colorado Springs. 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 were no reports of anyone missing in the fire. But he was concerned 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.
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. It 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.
"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.
Wildfires were also burning in New Mexico, Oregon and California, where a smokejumper was killed fighting one of dozens of lightning-sparked fires. Luke Sheehy, of Susanville, Calif., was fatally injured by part of a falling tree in Modoc National Forest. The 28-year-old was a member of the Redding-based California Smokejumpers - firefighters who parachute into remote areas from airplanes.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service announced Wednesday that it was mobilizing two Defense Department C-130s to drop slurry on the fires in Colorado and elsewhere in the West because all 10 of its air tankers are busy fighting fires. The Forest Service didn't say where the planes would be used but they are based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs and U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said one would be used to fight the Black Forest Fire.
Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems - called MAFFS - provide a "surge capability" for when all commercial air tankers are in use.
"Yesterday we had kind of an unexpected uptick in activity, especially in Colorado," she said.
It's a big change from last year at this time when Air National Guard C-130s fitted to drop slurry sat on the runway as massive wildfires burning in Colorado and New Mexico tested the resources of state and federal crews. Officials said they were barred from helping because, by law, the Forest Service cannot call for military resources until it deems that its fleet is fully busy. They eventually were mobilized.
In Colorado, about 60 miles southwest of the Black Forest Fire, 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. 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. 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.
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.
Cindy Winemiller, of Black Forest, was driving back from Austin, Texas, with her boyfriend after visiting her son when a friend called to tell them the forest was on fire. They saw the big plume of smoke from Pueblo, about 30 miles away. After arriving home, they gathered insurance information and a few photos but didn't have time to get anything else because of the smoke and glow of the fire to the north.
"I'm hoping that it's OK. Probably smoke damage, but who knows. The winds are picking up," Winemiller said Wednesday.
Last year she volunteered to help victims of the Waldo Canyon fire sift through the rubble and find personal belongings. Winemiller said she will do the same this time around "and hope it's not my home."
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