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Colorado Springs Wildfire Grows To More Than 2,000 Acres (PHOTOS)

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Wildfires moved in on some of Colorado's most popular summer tourist destinations over the weekend, destroying nearly two dozen homes near Rocky Mountain National Park and emptying hotels and campgrounds at the base of Pikes Peak.

A wildfire near Colorado Springs erupted Saturday and grew out of control to more than 3 square miles early Sunday, prompting the evacuation of more than 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists. Authorities said Sunday that they were allowing about 5,000 of those residents to return.

On Saturday, a blaze destroyed structures near the mountain community of Estes Park, where many visitors stay while visiting the park. The Larimer County Sheriff's Office said Sunday that 22 homes and 2 outbuildings had been burned.

The two fires are among eight burning in Colorado a week before the Fourth of July, a key time for family vacations to national parks and other destinations. A statewide ban on open campfires and private fireworks has been in place for more than a week.

"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 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.

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.

Plumes of gray and white smoke poured from the mountains Sunday, obscuring at times Pikes Peak, the most-summited high-elevation mountain in the nation and inspiration for the song "America The Beautiful." Winds were pushing smoke away from Colorado Springs, but residents and tourists watched nervously as haze wrapped around the peak.

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.

Half the nation's firefighting fleet is now battling fires in Colorado, said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He said C-130 military transport planes from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs would begin assisting on Monday.

With eight wildfires burning – including a two week-old fire that has scorched more than 118 square miles and destroyed 248 homes near Fort Collins – Colorado is having its worst wildfire season in a decade.

Authorities had previously said that 191 homes were burned in that fire, but The Denver Post () reported Sunday that fire officials told residents of the Glacier View subdivision that at least 57 more homes in their neighborhood have been lost. http://bit.ly/NqoAkp

"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.

The wildfire near Rocky Mountain National Park 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."

Carolyn Baty and her husband, Darrell, vacationing from Fort Worth, Texas, were evacuated from their cabin Saturday afternoon.

"I smelled smoke coming from both directions, and then I heard the knock on the door," Darrell Baty told The Denver Post.

Some evacuees were allowed home Sunday from the fire burning near Fort Collins. That blaze has become among the largest and most expensive in Colorado history.

Elsewhere in the West, firefighters made progress against wildfires in Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

_ In Utah, a 15-square-mile blaze around Fountain Green in Sanpete County was threatening more than 359 permanent structures and 213 mobile homes and travel trailers in four rural subdivisions, forcing about 1,000 people to flee. BLM says the human-caused fire erupted Saturday afternoon. Officials report progress on a 9-square-mile wildfire around Saratoga Springs, about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.

_ In California, a wildfire about 60 miles north of Los Angeles triggered evacuations of campgrounds around an off-road recreation area on Saturday. Officials said the fire has blackened at least 1,000 acres in the Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area, along the Interstate 5 corridor in Gorman.

_ In New Mexico, a lightning-caused wildfire that destroyed 242 homes and businesses is 90 percent contained. The 69-square-mile fire near Ruidoso began June 4. Meanwhile, the largest wildfire in state history was 87 percent contained, having burned more than 464 square miles after two blazes merged on May 16.

_ In Montana, two wildfires were burning in the southwest part of the state, including the fast-moving Antelope Fire, which started Saturday afternoon about 10 miles north of Whitehall and had grown to 462 acres on Sunday. About 100 firefighters were battling that blaze.

_ In Arizona, the U.S. Forest Service said Sunday that containment against the Poco Fire, just outside of Young, is up to 50 percent and remains under 12,000 acres. Officials say many of the firefighting resources are being released to their home units or to other fire assignments.

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