Colorado State Patrol officer Jessie Bartunek talks to a motorist as he stands at a checkpoint near South Fork, Colo., Sunday, June 23, 2013. A large wildfire near a popular summer retreat in southern Colorado continues to be driven by winds and fueled by dead trees in a drought-stricken area, authorities said Sunday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — A wildfire burning northeast of Colorado Springs has destroyed at least 360 homes, making it the most destructive in state history.
El Paso County sheriff Terry Maketa said Thursday that deputies still haven't been able to verify the condition of 79 homes as the wildfire continues to burn. So it's possible the figure could rise even higher.
The fire is burning near where the Waldo Canyon fire burned 347 homes last year and killed two people. It was previously the most destructive in Colorado history.
Fueled by hot temperatures, changing gusts, and thick, bone-dry forests, the Black Forest Fire earlier prompted evacuation orders and pre-evacuation notices to more than 9,000 people and to about 3,500 homes and businesses, sheriff's officials said.
Jaenette Coyne was one of those ordered to get out as quickly as possible.
Coyne estimates she had five minutes to leave home after calling 911 to report smoke behind her home. There was no time to grab wedding albums, fingerprint artwork by her 20-month-old daughter, quilts her grandmother made, her family's three cats.
"We left with nothing," she said.
She and her husband later watched on television this week 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 a total of about 1,250 children and adults, also was evacuated.
No injuries or deaths have been reported, but Maketa said officials are trying to confirm the whereabouts of one person reported missing. The cause wasn't clear.
The fire was among several that surged rapidly Tuesday along Colorado's Front Range. Wildfires also were burning in New Mexico, Oregon and California, where a smokejumper was killed fighting one of dozens of lightning-sparked fires.
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 Colorado's Black Forest Fire, 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, fire 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.
Associated Press writers Steven K. Paulson, Ivan Moreno and Catherine Tsai in Denver contributed to this report.