Wildfire may be biggest property destroyer in Colorado history

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (CNN) -- A wildfire near Colorado Springs, Colorado, is chewing through thousands of acres and, thanks to strong winds, moving at a pace that authorities didn't expect.

The Black Forest Fire, burning northeast of the city, now appears to be the most destructive in terms of property lost in Colorado state history, El Paso County spokesman Dave Rose told CNN.

The fire's evacuation area is 93,000 acres encompassing approximately 38,000 people and 13,000 homes, and the flames are estimated to have burned through 15,000 acres, Sheriff Terry Maketa announced at a Wednesday news conference.

That marked a dramatic increase from the 8,500 acres officials said had been burned by Wednesday night, he noted.

"Wind is probably our number one threat," Maketa said. Combined with dry brush and high temperatures, the winds have fanned devastating flames.

Maketa said he struggled to find a phrase to describe how ferocious the fire is, settling on "very dynamic."

In northeast Colorado Springs, iReporter Heather Croze took photos outside her home, capturing a billowing plume of smoke. One shot shows just how wide the smoke was on the horizon.

A county fairground northeast of the Black Forest Fire looked like a Noah's Ark Thursday with families who fled with their animals to escape the looming inferno.

There were nearly 30 chickens, several hundred horses, a handful of cows and a couple calves, and many alpacas and miniature horses, according to the Elbert County Sheriff's Office. Assorted dogs, cats, goats and donkeys mingled with mules and lamas. Three stallions were there. And for good measure, one yak.

At least eight families also have taken refuge at the Elbert County Fairgrounds in Kiowa, the Denver Post reported, which is about 35 miles southeast of Denver.

Joanne Gaishin slept outside in her car after fleeing her home with 18 chickens and three turkeys. "I stayed in the front seat of my car with all of my fowl in there, with the roosters crowing in the morning," she told the paper.

'Not knowing if I have a house'

Earlier, Paula Warren, one of thousands of residents forced to flee her home northeast of Colorado Springs, spoke about how difficult it was to leave and wonder if her home was all right.

"I thought I had about an hour, and it turned out to be about 20 minutes," she said. "I had a pillowcase full of socks, and that's basically all I have."

By Thursday afternoon, she got bad news. A friend called her to say that her home was on an online list of residences that had been designated as destroyed. Warren didn't know exactly where online the friend had seen the information but she believes it to be true.

For a person who had just been told their home was gone, Warren had a cheerful attitude when talking with CNN, laughing and saying that she was just going to go back home when she could, hitch up a trailer on the property, live in that and rebuild her house.

Her home sat on five acres and she doesn't think the land has been damaged. "Trees are still standing," she said.

For now she and her two miniature horses are staying with a friend on the outskirts of Colorado Springs.

The animals have adjusted fairly well, she said.

"You can't just take 'em to a Motel 6," she said. "And my friend is very tolerant."

Working to protect homes

Maketa praised the swift and strong help that civilian workers have been getting from National Guard and other military responders. Authorities said that they are watching neighborhoods and homes to do everything they can to keep them safe while combating the blaze.

But there have been losses.

Maketa said Thursday that 360 homes had been destroyed; another 14 were partially damaged.

Ken Litch, a 12-year resident of the area, watched Wednesday as the Black Forest Fire gained ground on his home. There wasn't much else he could do.

"A hundred homes would be nothing," he told CNN affiliate KUSA. "Whatever is in its way, it's going to take."

Another man, his voice choked with emotion, said, "You've worked your whole life to have your own little place on this globe. You find someplace that's special to you ... and then it's gone."

The inferno is likely to continue for a couple more days as temperatures are forecast to stay in the 90s through Friday, with winds gusting up to 30 mph.

No fatalities have been reported, authorities said Thursday, and one person believed to have been missing has been found.

Famous bridge still intact

Another major fire in the state is the Royal Gorge Fire, which is burning 55 miles to the southwest, on the other side of Colorado Springs.

It burned several buildings around the iconic Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge, and threatened the bridge itself.

Authorities downgraded the number of acres burned from 3,800 to 3,100 late Wednesday. The wildfire was 20% contained, the state office of emergency management reported. Twenty structures have been lost to the flames.

"We have made good progress on the fire today without any accidents or injuries," said Dennis Page, incident commander for the fire.

The Royal Gorge Fire triggered the precautionary evacuation of some 905 inmates from the Centennial Correctional Facility, located in Canon City.

Most of the inmates are "special needs," meaning they receive medical treatment, said state corrections department spokeswoman Alison Morgan.

The famous Royal Gorge Bridge that spans the Arkansas River is intact but needs to be inspected before it can reopen for tourists, a spokeswoman for the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park said.

The suspension bridge, which is 956 feet above the river and among the highest in the world, is made of more than 1,000 wooden planks.

"We did not know until today whether the bridge was still standing," Gorge Bridge and Park spokeswoman Peggy Gair said.

Gair says fire at the park burned a visitor's center, a tramway building, a carousel and several restaurants.

There were other fires in the state as well, including in Grand and Huerfano counties. Black Forest was the biggest of the blazes.