It’s a Noah’s Ark at fairgrounds as Colorado blaze looms

Posted at 12:05 PM, Jun 13, 2013
and last updated 2013-06-13 12:05:39-04

By Ashley Fantz and Paul Vercammen

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (CNN) — A county fairground northeast of Colorado’s Black Forest Fire is looking like a Noah’s Ark Thursday with animals rescued from raging wildfires.

There were nearly 30 chickens, several hundred horses, a handful of cows and a couple calves, and many alpacas and miniature horses, according to the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office. Assorted dogs, cats, goats and donkeys mingled with mules and lamas. Three stallions were there. And for good measure, one yak.

At least eight families also have taken refuge at the Elbert County Fairgrounds in Kiowa, the Denver Post reported. Kiowa is about 35 miles southeast of Denver.

Joanne Gaishin slept outside in her car after fleeing her home with 18 chickens and three turkeys. “I stayed in the front seat of my car with all of my fowl in there, with the roosters crowing in the morning,” she told the paper.

Meanwhile, in northeast Colorado Springs, iReporter Heather Croze took photos outside her home, capturing a billowing plume of smoke. One shot shows just how wide the smoke was on the horizon.

Ferocious wildfires are roaring across the region, scorching thousands of acres and devouring dozens of homes.

“This part, not knowing if I have a house or not is the worst,” said Paula Warren, one of thousands of residents forced to flee as the Black Forest Fire closed in on her home northeast of Colorado Springs.

Warren thought she had more time to leave her home. But she was wrong.

“I thought I had about an hour, and it turned out to be about 20 minutes,” she said. “I had a pillowcase full of socks, and that’s basically all I have.”

The Black Forest Fire spread rapidly from Wednesday to Thursday, according to El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa.

On Wednesday the fire had spread to 8,500 acres, but it had scorched at least 15,000 acres by Thursday morning.

“Wind is probably our number one threat,” the sheriff said at a morning news conference.

Maketa said he struggled to find a phrase to describe how ferocious the fire is, settling on “very dynamic.”

Civilian responders wouldn’t have been able to do their job without swift and strong help from National Guard and other military responders who have jumped in to help, he added.

The sheriff wanted to assure homeowners who had been forced to leave their houses that someone is watching out for their homes. Authorities are out in force, watching neighborhoods and homes and combating the blaze.

Maketa said 360 homes are a complete loss; another 14 are partially damaged.

Fighting another blaze

Another major fire chewing through the area is the Royal Gorge Fire, which is burning on the other side of Colorado Springs, threatening the iconic Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge.

Firefighters have continued their assault on the flames from the ground and from the sky.

But high temperatures, dry brush and gusty winds are proving to be a catastrophic combination.

Ken Litch is a 12-year resident of the area. On Wednesday, he watched as the Black Forest Fire gained ground on his home. There wasn’t much else he could do.

“A hundred homes would be nothing,” he told CNN affiliate KUSA. “Whatever is in its way, it’s going to take.”

And it’s already taken quite a bit.

‘… And then it’s gone’

The inferno is likely to continue for a couple more days as temperatures are forecast to stay in the 90s through Friday, with winds gusting up to 30 mph.

Maketa said he anticipated the Black Forest fire would grow by another 3,000 acres.

Mandatory evacuation orders, which extended over a 55-square-mile area, affected about 9,000 people in more than 3,400 households.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were no reports of casualties, but one person might be missing, Maketa said.

Still, at least 92 structures were labeled as lost, leaving many families heartbroken.

“You’ve worked your whole life to have your own little place on this globe,” said one man, his voice choked with emotion. “You find someplace that’s special to you … and then it’s gone.”

Famous bridge still intact

The Royal Gorge Fire is burning about 55 miles to the southwest.

Authorities downgraded the number of acres burned from 3,800 to 3,100 late Wednesday. It was less than half the size of the Black Forest Fire and was 20% contained, the state office of emergency management reported. Twenty structures have been lost to the flames.

“We have made good progress on the fire today without any accidents or injuries,” said Dennis Page, incident commander for the fire.

The Royal Gorge Fire triggered the precautionary evacuation of some 905 inmates from the Centennial Correctional Facility, located in Canon City.

Most of the inmates are “special needs,” meaning they receive medical treatment, said state corrections department spokeswoman Alison Morgan.

The famous Royal Gorge Bridge that spans the Arkansas River is still intact but needs to be inspected before it can reopen for tourists, a spokeswoman for the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park said.

The suspension bridge, which is 956 feet above the river and among the highest in the world, is made of more than 1,000 wooden planks.

“We did not know until today whether the bridge was still standing,” Gorge Bridge and Park spokeswoman Peggy Gair said.

Gair says fire at the park burned a visitor’s center, a tramway building, a carousel and several restaurants.

There were other fires in the state as well, including in Grand and Huerfano counties. Black Forest was the biggest of the blazes.

CNN’s Paul Vercammen reported from Colorado Springs and Ashley Fantz reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Dan Simon in Colorado Springs contributed to this report along with Greg Botelho and Dave Alsup.

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