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Wind-driven wildfires destroy homes near Colorado Springs

Large plumbs of smoke from a wildfire burning in the Black Forest stretch the horizon threatening homes north east of Colorado Springs, Colorado June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Louis Batides Large plumbs of smoke from a wildfire burning in the Black Forest stretch the horizon threatening homes north east of Colorado Springs, Colorado June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Louis Batides

Fire crews battled a wind-whipped wildfire on Wednesday that burned dozens of homes on the edge of Colorado Springs, while another blaze shut one of Colorado's top tourist attractions and prompted the evacuation of more than 900 inmates from a prison.

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

The fast-moving blaze reached a residential neighborhood where it razed between 40 and 60 homes and an unknown number of outbuildings by late Tuesday, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said. He said the fire was estimated to cover an area of at least 8,000 acres.

Evacuation notices went out to several thousand local residents, and Army National Guard troops have been deployed to help local police agencies prevent looting in the area, Maketa said late on Tuesday.

Maketa compared the conflagration to the so-called Waldo Canyon Fire in June 2012 -- the most destructive wildfire in Colorado's history. It reduced about 350 homes to ash in the Colorado Springs area and led authorities to place 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 above the Arkansas River for a quarter-mile and is one of Colorado's most visible tourist destinations. The bridge itself is not threatened by the flames.

The fire started on the south side of the river and later jumped to the north bank, fire managers said. They added that the river is closed to rafting and nearby residents are under mandatory evacuation orders.

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 medical needs including wheelchairs.

Investigators are seeking the cause of both fires.

In northern Colorado, a lightning-sparked wildfire that erupted on Monday in Rocky Mountain National Park has burned about 400 acres 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 Fahrenheit (upper 30s Celsius), 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.

In Northern California, a wildfire claimed the life of a 28-year-old U.S. Forest Service smokejumper, officials said on Tuesday. Smokejumpers are firefighters who parachute into remote areas to attack forest fires.

 
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