In this Saturday, June 23, 2012 photo provided by Darrell Spangler, a firefighter works the scene of a home being consumed by flames in Estes Park, Colo. (AP Photo/Darrell Spangler)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Wildfires damaged more than a dozen Colorado homes over the weekend and forced evacuations for thousands more while shrouding top state tourist destinations in smoke and emptying hotels and campgrounds ahead of the Fourth of July holiday.
Colorado is having its worst wildfire season in a decade with more than a half dozen forest fires burning. One of the newest fires, a blaze near Colorado Springs, grew to more than 3 square miles Sunday after erupting just a day earlier and prompting evacuation orders for 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists.
The fire sent plumes of gray and white smoke over the area that obscured at times Pikes Peak, the most-summited high-elevation mountain in the nation and inspiration for the song "America The Beautiful."
Winds had started to push smoke away from Colorado Springs and evacuations orders were lifted for the 5,000 residents of nearby Manitou Springs, but area residents and tourists still watched nervously as haze wrapped around the peak.
"We're used to flooding and tornadoes, nothing like this," said Amanda Rice, who recently moved to the area from Rock Falls, Ill. Rice, her husband, four children and dog. They left a Manitou Springs hotel late Saturday.
Rice, scared when she saw flames, took her family to the evacuation center before she was told to go.
"It was just this God-awful orange glow. It was surreal. It honestly looked like hell was opening up," Rice said Sunday.
Half the nation's firefighting fleet is now battling fires in Colorado, said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He said C-130 military transport planes from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs would begin assisting on Monday.
"People recognize this is going to take a big push" to extinguish, Hickenlooper said Sunday from a Colorado Springs grocery store, where volunteers were passing out burritos, sandwiches and drinks to 350 firefighters working near Pikes Peak.
A statewide ban on open campfires and private fireworks has been in place for more than a week.
While no homes were reported damaged in the Colorado Springs-area fire, a forest fire near Rocky Mountain National Park destroyed structures near the mountain community of Estes Park. The Larimer County Sheriff's Office said Sunday that 22 homes and 2 outbuildings had been burned.
The Estes Park destroyed vacation cabins and closed the most commonly used entrance to the park. Clouds of smoke blew toward the 102-year-old Stanley Hotel that inspired Stephen King to write "The Shining."
Also over the weekend, residents of a subdivision near the northern Colorado city of Fort Collins learned that 57 more homes in their neighborhood had been lost to High Park fire, which already had claimed 191 homes, authorities said.
The High Park Fire is the second-largest wildfire and among the most expensive in Colorado's history. It has scorched more than 130 square miles and was just 45 percent contained on Sunday, The Denver Post reported.
With Colorado midway through its worst wildfire season in a decade, travelers have seen some of their favorite sites closed to the public, obscured by smoke and haze. Some travelers were awoken with evacuation orders.
Families planning whitewater rafting trips or visits to the stunning red-rock formations in Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs were instead spending their vacations passing out bottled water and setting up cots in evacuee centers.
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," Stein said of the day of travel. With his wife and two sons, Stein spent the first night of his vacation setting up cots for more than 200 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," Stein said.
Also Sunday, a brushfire that began near Elbert, about 50 miles southwest of Denver, quickly spread to about 60 acres, forcing the evacuation of about 100 residents.