COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - A wildfire in a dry, densely wooded area of Colorado has destroyed at least 360 homes -- nearly four times the previous estimate and a number that seemed likely to climb as the flames kept burning out of control, authorities said Thursday.
The tally of lost homes was a dramatic increase from Wednesday evening, when 92 homes were listed as gone. The blaze in the Black Forest area northeast of Colorado Springs is now the most destructive in Colorado history, surpassing last year's Waldo Canyon fire, which burned 347 homes, killed two people and led to $353 million in insurance claims.
"I never in my wildest dreams imagined we'd be dealing a year later with very similar circumstances," said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa. "Maybe we just had 20 to 30 years of luck."
Deputies still have not been able to verify the condition of 79 other homes, so the losses could rise.
Some of the homes that were previously listed as standing were destroyed as high winds pushed the 23-square-mile wildfire back into areas that had already burned, the sheriff said.
The number also rose because deputies worked through the night to assess the damage, although they were also pushed out by the flames at times.
"Houses we knew were standing yesterday I personally witnessed they were lost last night," Maketa said.
Fueled by hot temperatures, wind gusts and bone-dry forest conditions, the flames have also forced more evacuations. About 38,000 people who live in an area spanning nearly 70 square miles were under mandatory orders to get out.
Jaenette Coyne was one of those ordered to leave as quickly as possible.
After calling 911 to report smoke behind her home, Coyne estimated she had five minutes to leave home. There was no time to grab wedding albums, fingerprint artwork by her 20-month-old daughter, quilts her grandmother made or the family's three cats.
"We left with nothing," she said.
She and her husband later watched on television as flames engulfed their house.
"I don't know how to tell you in words what it felt like," she said. "It's the worst thing I've ever felt in my whole life."
Part of neighboring Elbert County, including two camps with about 1,250 children and adults, was also evacuated.
No injuries or deaths have been reported, but Maketa said officials are trying to confirm the whereabouts of one person reported missing.
The fire was among several that have been burning along Colorado's Front Range. Wildfires were also burning in New Mexico, Oregon and California, where a smokejumper was killed fighting one of dozens of lightning-sparked blazes.
The U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday mobilized a pair of Defense Department cargo planes to help -- a step taken only when all of the Forest Service's 12 contracted tankers are in use. At least one was fighting the Black Forest fire.
About 60 miles southwest of the Black Forest, a 4.5-square-mile wildfire that evacuated Royal Gorge Bridge & Park has destroyed 20 structures, including some in the park.
The Royal Gorge suspension bridge spanning a canyon across the Arkansas River has fire damage to 32 of its 1,292 wooden planks, city officials said. An aerial tram car and tram buildings on either side of the gorge were destroyed, and the tram cable fell into the gorge. An incline railway descending 1,500 feet to the canyon floor was damaged.
Another fire sparked by lightning Monday in Rocky Mountain National Park has grown to an estimated 600 acres in area with trees killed by pine beetles.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has declared disaster emergencies for the Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires and a 60-acre fire in rural Huerfano County, authorizing a combined $10.15 million to help pay for firefighting and other costs.
At a Wal-Mart and Home Depot parking lot, evacuees Greg and Sharon Rambo set up camp. They had been living in a modular home in Black Forest as they waited to close on a larger house nearby. They believe both have burned.
"It leaves you feeling numb, loss of appetite, disoriented," Greg Rambo said.
The couple previously lived in Southern California and were evacuated 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 have a place to sleep in the event their home burns down.
Their daughter, who lives nearby, called them Tuesday and urged them to flee. They do not know if her house also burned.
Meanwhile, Coyne said, her young daughter has been asking when her family can go home and "see their kitties." She said the family has a place to stay but could use guidance on what to do next.
"What do you do when you've lost everything," she said.