Jun 12, 2013 6:15 PM by NBC News
A series of Colorado wildfires drove thousands of people from their homes Wednesday, scorching wide swaths of wooded residential land near Colorado Springs and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of inmates from an area prison.
More than 900 prisoners were transported overnight from the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, which houses many inmates with medical needs, to other prisons, corrections spokesman Adrienne Jacobson told The Associated Press.
"This was done as a precaution because it takes a lot of time to move the prisoners," Jacobson said. The prison is about an hour from Colorado Springs.
A red flag warning was in effect for western Colorado plus the Colorado Springs area Wednesday as temperatures approaching 100 degrees and strong winds contributed to "critical fire weather conditions," the National Weather Service reported. No deaths or injuries had been reported, but authorities strongly urged people to obey evacuation warnings.
The largest of the blazes, the Black Forest fire in El Paso County, had grown to between 7,500 and 8,000 acres and damaged or destroyed 40 to 60 structures as it chewed its way through a Colorado Springs neighborhood, authorities said.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said he'd requested reinforcements as firefighters tried to cover 48 square miles of dry timber but hadn't gotten a response Wednesday as local, state and federal crews faced down major fires across the state.
"As you can tell, weather is not working with us, but our guys are giving it a heck of a shot," he said.
"The challenge we're facing is a lack of manpower."
More than 150 firefighters and 130 law enforcement personnel were at work to quench the flames, whose cause remained unknown. Because much of the fire scene has no hydrant system, crews were having to truck in water past exploding propane and other fuel tanks, and "with each of those efforts, you're losing time and square footage," Maketa said.
ome residents who had resisted earlier evacuation orders later "changed their minds" as the fire grew, Maketa said. But many insisted on staying behind, and he warned that they were putting themselves in dire danger.
"I know we had people stay in there, and I do have concerns that we could be facing a tragedy that involves people," he said.
The El Paso County Fairground began accepting evacuated large animals as well as RVs and campers as the Black Forest fire remained zero percent contained Wednesday morning, the sheriff's office said.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, who represents the area in Congress, said in a statement that the fire was especially frightening with the memory of the Waldo Canyon fire - the most destructive on the record books in Colorado - still fresh. That fire forced the evacuations of 35,000 people and destroyed 346 homes when it burned through the Colorado Springs area in 2012.
One aircraft and dozens of firefighters worked to contain the Royal Gorge fire near Cañon City after the blaze was reported around 1 p.m. (3 p.m. ET) Tuesday. U.S. Highway 50 and local roads were closed as mandatory evacuations were put into effect for the surrounding area.
The fire had burned through more than 3,800 acres and consumed three structures as of Wednesday. Containment remained at zero percent as the day ended.
"It's certainly not out of the question that we'll be fighting this fire for another week," said Royal Gorge fire spokesman Gregg Goodland, who added that Cañon City itself might still need to be evacuated. "This fire is not going to go away any time soon, especially under the dry conditions."
Officials expressed concern for the Royal Gorge Bridge, a suspension bridge that sits more than 950 feet over the Arkansas River, as the fire burned on either side. The park surrounding the bridge remained closed until further notice, General Manager Mike Bandera said.