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Reuters, Published June 13 2013

Colorado Springs wildfire razes 360 homes

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Hundreds of firefighters made a determined stand on Thursday to stop a wind-whipped wildfire that has already destroyed some 360 homes from roaring into the outskirts of Colorado Springs after it billowed overnight into the most destructive blaze in state history.

The so-called Black Forest Fire has charred more than 23 square miles of heavily wooded rolling hillsides northeast of the state's second-largest city since it erupted on Tuesday, burning homes and forcing some 38,000 people to flee their homes.

There have been no reports of injures in the blaze.

But with the fire still burning out of control and driven by erratic, 30-mile-per-hour winds that showed no sign of diminishing, officials on Thursday afternoon ordered evacuations for about 1,000 homes in the northern tip of Colorado Springs.

"We're not confident that if the winds changed and pushed the fire to any one of our boundaries that it could be held," El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said, adding that firefighters were working to save homes on the west and northwest flanks of the blaze.

In Colorado Springs, where last summer the Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed nearly 350 homes in the city and surrounding areas, thick pillars of smoke could be seen rising from the burn areas and the smell of burning wood and foliage lingered in the air.

More than 400 firefighters were battling the Black Forest Fire, assisted by water-dropping aircraft and 140 personnel from the Colorado National Guard. The Guard also loaned three UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, each carrying 500-gallon water buckets, for the effort.

Maketa said the Black Forest Fire, named for the community where it broke out, has now claimed more homes than the Waldo blaze, which was then considered the most destructive in state history. The Waldo fire also killed an elderly couple and forced 35,000 people from their homes.

HOMEOWNERS FLEE WITH HORSES

No solid containment lines have been established around the blaze, which along with several other major fires in the state underscored concerns that persistent drought could intensify this year's fire season in the western United States.

A number of the properties destroyed in the wildfire were upscale homes on large lots nestled in heavily wooded areas and the blaze has forced horse owners in the area to flee with their animals in tow.

So far, flames from the Black Forest Fire have not damaged properties within the city limits of Colorado Springs. In addition to the 360 homes destroyed outside the city, 14 were damaged and the status of 79 others could not be determined.

"If the winds kick up like they did yesterday, that's my greatest concern," Maketa said.

"We have a large area when you're thinking of 15,000 acres where you can drive through one hour and things look pretty well calmed down, like it's smoldering. Then we get a gust of wind and the next thing you know you have a raging flame, and we're seeing that all over," he said.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed executive orders on Wednesday declaring "disaster emergencies" that set aside more than $10 million for costs related to the Black Forest Fire and two other blazes in the state.

About 50 miles to the southwest of Black Forest, the Royal Gorge Fire, which also broke out on Tuesday, has burned more than 3,100 acres, according to tracking site InciWeb.org.

That blaze has forced the closure of one of the state's leading tourist attractions, the Royal Gorge Bridge, and the evacuation of more than 905 inmates from the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Canon City.

The quarter-mile long, 1,000-foot-high bridge, which spans the Arkansas River and is billed as the world's highest suspension bridge, was scorched by flames on Wednesday, but remained intact, although 20 other structures in the area were lost, fire officials said.

Residents of Canon City, about one mile west of the Royal Gorge Fire, have been warned and firefighters are making a stand to protect the community, said Mike Stearly, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.

The Big Meadows Fire north of Denver in Rocky Mountain National Park has charred 600 acres, the site said.