COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Flames forced thousands of Colorado residents from their homes over the weekend and disrupted vacation plans for countless visitors as smoke shrouded some of the state's top tourist destinations, including majestic Pike's Peak and tranquil Estes Park.
Colorado is having its worst wildfire season in a decade, with more than a half dozen forest fires burning across the state's parched terrain. Some hotels and campgrounds are emptying ahead of the busy Fourth of July holiday.
One of the newest fires, a blaze near Colorado Springs, grew to more than 6 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.
Even while other large fires burn across the West, Colorado's blazes have demanded half the nation's firefighting fleet, according to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He said C-130 military transport planes from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs would begin assisting Monday.