Colorado Springs, Colo. • A trio of Colorado wildfires fueled by hot temperatures, gusty winds and thick, bone-dry forests has burned dozens of homes and forced the evacuation of more than 7,000 residents and nearly 1,000 inmates at medium-security prison.
Wildfires also were burning in New Mexico, Oregon and California, where a smokejumper was killed fighting one of dozens of lightning-sparked fires.
Crews were so busy battling wildfires across the West that the U.S. Forest Service announced Wednesday it is mobilizing a pair of Defense Department cargo planes to drop slurry on the blazes. Such action can't be taken unless all of the Forest Service's contracted tankers already are in use.
Near Colorado Springs, authorities fear that a 12-square-mile wildfire in a heavily-wooded residential area might have already destroyed around 100 homes even as it continued to send up puffs of black smoke and likely consumed more buildings.
The fire, one of several that broke out Tuesday along Colorado's Front Range, has forced thousands of evacuations in an area over 47 square miles. An unknown number of Colorado Springs residents also have been warned to be ready to evacuate, mostly because of a fear of flying embers spreading the fire into the state's second-largest city. About 900 people in neighboring Elbert County, including two camps, have also been evacuated.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said there were no reports of anyone missing in the Black Forest Fire, but he was concerned about those who chose to ignore evacuation orders and stay behind.
"One of my worst fears is that people took their chances and it may have cost them their life," he said.
The area is not far from last summer's devastating Waldo Canyon Fire that destroyed 346 homes and killed two.
The Forest Service said it was mobilizing two specially equipped Defense Department C-130s to help with wildfires in the West after all 12 of its air tankers were deployed.
By law, the Modular Airborne Firefighting System MAFFS planes can be deployed only when all of the Forest Service's contracted tankers are in use. Last year at around this time, they sat on runways when massive wildfires burned in Colorado and New Mexico.
The agency didn't say where the C-130s would be used. But they are based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, and U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said they would be used to fight the nearby Black Forest Fire.
"Yesterday we had kind of an unexpected uptick in activity, especially in Colorado," said Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Lamborn said Congress should determine whether there are enough aerial tankers to fight wildfires.
"We should look at that. We gotta look at that. Given the fact that we're off to another tragic fire season, kind of early in the year, maybe that shows us that we do need more," he said.
In northeast California, 28-year-old Luke Sheehy was fatally injured by part of a falling tree in Modoc National Forest. The Susanville, Calif., man was a member of the Redding-based California Smokejumpers firefighters who parachute into remote areas from airplanes.
About 60 miles southwest of the Black Forest Fire, a 6-square-mile wildfire was burning near Royal Gorge Bridge Park but winds are pushing the fire away from Canon City and structures.
The Royal Gorge Fire has destroyed three structures near Canon City, but the soaring suspension bridge spanning a canyon across the Arkansas River is intact. It's normally a tourist attraction but firefighters are now using it to access the fire.
More than 900 prisoners at a nearby medium-security prison, including murderers, rapists and other serious offenders, were evacuated overnight, because of heavy smoke from the blaze. The prisoners were transferred by bus and van, 200 at a time, throughout the night from the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, built in 1871. The prison also includes an infirmary and some prisoners use wheelchairs and canes.
"This was done as a precaution because it takes a lot of time to move the prisoners," Department of Corrections spokeswoman Adrienne Jacobson said.
Another fire sparked by lightning Monday in Rocky Mountain National Park has grown to an estimated 400 acres in area with trees killed by pine beetles.
Near Colorado Springs, fire evacuees Greg and Sharon Rambo set up camp in a Wal-Mart and Home Depot parking lot. They were living in a modular home in Black Forest as they waited to close on a larger house nearby. They believe both were burned.
"It leaves you feeling numb, loss of appetite, disoriented," Greg Rambo said.
This isn't the first fire the couple has fled. They lived previously in Southern California, and were evacuated from their house there during a 2004 blaze that hopscotched over their property without damaging it. Since then, they have carried a briefcase filled with medications and important documents, and kept their trailer far from their house so they'd still have a place to sleep in the event their home burns down.
Their daughter, who lives nearby, called them Tuesday afternoon and urged them to flee. They do not know if her house also burned.
Sharon Rambo said the wind shifted shortly after that call and ash began to pour from the sky. That's when they left. They plan to stay in the parking lot of New Life Church in Colorado Springs Wednesday night. As they described their predicament, the wind shifted and an enormous black plume of smoke suddenly shot up on the horizon behind the parking lot.
People came up and offered them pizza and water. "We're all people. We all love each other," Greg Rambo said.