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Reuters, Published June 12 2013

Colo. wildfire burns at least 80 homes

DENVER - Fire crews battled a wind-whipped wildfire on Wednesday that burned at least 80 homes near Colorado Springs, while another blaze shut one of the state's top tourist attractions and forced the evacuation of more than 900 inmates from a prison.

The fire about 15 miles northeast of Colorado Springs ignited on Tuesday and ripped through the Black Forest, said Mike Stearly, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.

The fast-moving blaze in a heavily wooded area reached a residential community, where it razed between 80 and 100 homes and an unknown number of outbuildings, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa told reporters. He said the fire was estimated to cover an area of 7,500 acres (3,035 hectares) to 8,000 acres (3,240 hectares).

Evacuation notices went out to 2,600 homes housing 7,300 people, Maketa said. Army National Guard troops have been deployed to help police prevent looting.

The blaze is far from being under control or extinguished, Maketa said, adding that explosions, possibly from residential propane tanks, have been heard in some places. No firefighters or residents have been reported injured.

Maketa compared the blaze to Colorado's most destructive wildfire in June 2012, the so-called Waldo Canyon Fire, which reduced about 350 homes to ashes and placed more than 30,000 people in the area under mandatory evacuation orders.

In neighboring Fremont County, a 3,800-acre (1,540 hectare) wildfire broke out on Tuesday and prompted the evacuation of the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said in a statement.

The Royal Gorge span, which is billed as the world's highest suspension bridge, stretches nearly 1,000 feet (300 meters) above the Arkansas River for a quarter-mile (400 meters) and is one of Colorado's most visible tourist destinations.

The bridge itself is not threatened by the flames but fire managers said the river was closed to rafting. Investigators are seeking the cause of both fires.

The blaze also prompted the evacuation of 905 prisoners overnight from the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Canon City to other prisons as a precautionary measure, said state corrections spokeswoman Alison Morgan.

She said the fire had not reached the prison, which houses many inmates with mental health and other medical needs including wheelchairs.

In northern Colorado, a lightning-sparked wildfire that erupted on Monday in Rocky Mountain National Park has burned about 400 acres (160 hectares) and is spreading. No structures are immediately threatened by that blaze.

The National Weather Service said single-digit humidity values and temperatures in the upper 90s, combined with wind gusts in excess of 40 miles an hour have created "very high to extreme fire danger" in Colorado for most of the week.