- Associated Press - Sunday, June 24, 2012

COLORADO SPRINGS — A wildfire near Colorado Springs erupted and grew out of control to more than 3 square miles over the weekend, prompting the evacuation of a popular vacation town and the closure of nearby highways Sunday.

At least 11,000 residents of the town of Manitou Springs and nearby communities of Cascade, Chipita Park and Green Mountain Falls were ordered to leave Saturday or early Sunday. The fire quickly grew to more than 2,000 acres amid tinder dry conditions, gusty winds and temperatures that reached into the 90s.

Officials didn’t immediately have a count on those evacuated from campgrounds, inns, rental cabins and other vacation properties that were emptied, but an evacuation center set up at a high school housed mostly tourists.

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,” Mr. Stein said of the day of travel. With his wife and 12-year-old son, Mr. Stein spent the first night of his vacation setting up cots for more than 100 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,” Mr. Stein said.

The fire also prompted evacuations for the west side of Colorado Springs and in the towns of Cascade and Ute Pass, but no structures have been destroyed and no buildings were under immediate threat.

The Garden of the Gods park, which has dramatic red rock formations, also was closed. Pikes Peak, the most-visited high-altitude peak in the nation and the sight that inspired the song “America the Beautiful,” was completely obscured by gray smoke.

Officials closed traffic into Manitou Springs, a vacation town at the base of Pikes Peak, and shut down the Pikes Peak Highway, which goes to the top of the mountain.

Hundreds of other residents were under voluntary evacuation orders and were packing up, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported.

About 350 firefighters were dispatched to the blaze, with more in the way, said Rob Deyerberg of the Fairmount Fire Protection District. But the fire was still 0 percent contained. A plume of smoke from the foothills near Pikes Peak thickened and turned from light gray to brown.

Conditions remained dry and windy Sunday, and the National Weather Service said temperatures were forecast to be close to 100 degrees throughout much of the state.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said two C-130 military transport planes from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs would assist fighting the fire Monday. With eight separate wildfire burning across Colorado, Mr. Hickenlooper said half the nation’s firefighting resources were in the state but that it will take time to put out the blazes.

“People recognize this going to take a big push,” Mr. Hickenlooper said.

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