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Video: Firefighters ‘making strides’ containing Colo. blaze

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    >> a series of out of control wildfires have charred more than 100,000 acres now, decimated hundreds of home. nbc's miguel almaguer is in hard hit colorado springs . miguel , good morning.

    >> reporter: natalie, good morning. the waldo canyon fire here in colorado springs has charred 4500 acres. today is the nation's top priority fire as it threatens 1600 homes. more than 3,000 people still evacuated. there is some good news here. overnight crews made progress on the fire lines. this blaze is roughly 5 per contained. they hope that number goes up over the next 24 hours . it's been a mean and wicked fire season all across colorado, what one official describes as the worst fire season here in more than a decade. since march some 13 -- excuse me, 16 major wildfires have broken out across the state. today more than 70 aircraft are going to be crisscrossing the state trying to put out fires all across this region. as you know, there are major wildfires burning also in the state of new mexico , utah, and, of course, all up and down colorado. it's going to be a busy day for crews on the frontline. they are expecting to face gusty winds and triple digit heat. natalie, back to you.

    >> miguel in colorado springs , thank you.

msnbc.com news services
updated 6/25/2012 3:15:36 PM ET 2012-06-25T19:15:36

Flames forced thousands of Colorado residents from their homes over the weekend and disrupted vacation plans for countless visitors as smoke shrouded some of the state's top tourist destinations, including majestic Pike's Peak and tranquil Estes Park.

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Colorado is having its worst wildfire season in a decade, with more than a half dozen forest fires burning across the state's parched terrain. Some hotels and campgrounds are emptying ahead of the busy Fourth of July holiday.

One of the newest fires, a blaze near Colorado Springs, grew to more than 5 square miles Sunday after erupting just a day earlier and prompting evacuation orders for 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists.

Related: Wildfires leave Colorado tourism high and dry

The total number of homes destroyed by a two-week old wildfire in northern Colorado was raised to 248 on Sunday as residents of a subdivision near Fort Collins learned that 57 more homes in their neighborhood had been lost, authorities said.

Officials had put the fire at 6 square miles but reduced the estimated Monday after more precise mapping.

Firefighters braced for hot temperatures and high winds on the fire lines.

On Sunday, the fire sent plumes of gray and white smoke over the area that obscured at times Pikes Peak, the most-summited high-elevation mountain in the nation and inspiration for the song "America The Beautiful."

The fire was raging about six to 10 miles from the Air Force Academy as winds fanned the flames in its direction, and fire authorities listed the academy as being threatened by the blaze along with utilities, flood control structures and watershed.

A recreation area belonging to the Academy was ordered evacuated due to its proximity to the fire, and all trails leading west of the school were closed as a precaution, the base said on Monday.

But the blaze would still have to traverse rough terrain, burning down through steep canyons and up mountain ridges, before it would reach the Air Force Academy itself, Academy spokesman Meade Warthen said.

"We don't have any reason at this particular point to think we're going to be inundated, but we're standing by," Warthen said. "There are contingency plans in place. If we need to implement them, we will."

The Department of Homeland Security said it was providing the Federal Emergency Management Agency financial assistance to help battle the Waldo Canyon and other fires, noting the blaze's threat to 250 homes in the area.

Winds had started to push smoke away from Colorado Springs and evacuations orders were lifted for the 5,000 residents of nearby Manitou Springs, but area residents and tourists still watched nervously as haze wrapped around the peak.

"We're used to flooding and tornadoes, nothing like this," said Amanda Rice, who recently moved to the area from Rock Falls, Ill. Rice, her husband, four children and dog. They 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.

Image: Colorado Springs Fire
Bryan Oller  /  AP
The evening sky glows orange on Saturday from smoke and flames from the Waldo Canyon Fire west of Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs, Colo.

Even while other large fires burn across the West, Colorado's blazes have demanded half the nation's firefighting fleet, according to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He said C-130 military transport planes from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs would begin assisting Monday.

"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.

A statewide ban on open campfires and private fireworks has been in place for more than a week.

While no homes were reported damaged in the Colorado Springs-area fire, a forest fire near Rocky Mountain National Park destroyed structures near the mountain community of Estes Park. The Larimer County Sheriff's Office said Sunday that 22 homes and two outbuildings had been burned.

The Estes Park fire 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."

Also over the weekend, residents of a subdivision near the northern Colorado city of Fort Collins learned that 57 more homes in their neighborhood had been lost to the High Park Fire, which already had claimed 191 homes, authorities said.

Video: Wildfires rage across West

The High Park Fire is the second-largest wildfire and among the most expensive in Colorado's history. It has scorched more than 130 square miles and was just 45 percent contained on Sunday, The Denver Post reported.

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.

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, N.J., 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 Sunday, a brushfire that began near Elbert, about 50 miles southwest of Denver, quickly spread to about 60 acres, forcing the evacuation of about 100 residents.

Elsewhere across the West:

— An Alaska wildfire between Mount McKinley and town of Anderson grew to more than 30 square miles Monday. No homes were threatened.

— Despite dry, hot conditions, firefighters battling a fire that consumed nearly 70 square miles west of Roswell, N.M., was 90 percent contained, with many residents allowed to return home. And across the state, two small fires north of Santa Fe Sunday evening prompted brief evacuations of a handful of homes. One of the blazes threatened the historic El Santuario de Chimayo, a 19th century church that receives almost 300,000 visitors per year, but the church appeared out of danger Monday.

— A wildfire in Tonto National Forest near Young, Ariz., was 65 percent contained Monday as winds slowed to about 3 mph.

— Evacuation orders remained in place in Sanpete County, Utah, where said they had 10 percent containment on a fire that's threatening about 300 homes in Sanpete County.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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