WETMORE — Surrounded by black smoke, several Custer County residents in vehicles sought refuge in a gravel yard that they hoped would keep them from the fast-moving flames that devoured at least 12 structures and blocked their exit to safety.
The fire, reported about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday south of Wetmore, had grown to at least 1,000 acres by 8:30 p.m. and forced the evacuation of more than 600 homes in Custer and Pueblo counties, officials said. It closed Colorado 69 from the Pueblo Reservoir to Wetmore and Colorado 67 south from Florence.
The smoke could be seen as far away as Colorado Springs, putting fire-weary state residents on edge.
And some residents of Greenwood, a neighborhood south of Wetmore, saw the horror up close.
Gary and Barbara Hoehn spotted the fire from their home on County Road 390 and went for a closer look.
When they returned home 10 minutes later, flames were dangerously close. The couple rounded up their dogs and headed west in two separate vehicles.
When they encountered flames, they turned around and headed east.
“It was a dead end,” Barbara Hoehn said. “The flames were coming, and we ran out of places to hide.”
The Hoehns and several others waited out the fire near a steel building surrounded by a gravel yard.
The smoke was so dense the couple lost sight of one another.
Gary Hoehn’s passenger-side window cracked in the fire’s heat, and he feared his tires would blow out.
“We just waited for it to blow over us,” Gary Hoehn said.
As the couple drove out of Greenwood about 15 minutes later, they passed their home.
“Well, what was left of it,” Gary Hoehn said. “The roof was collapsing as we passed by.”
A large number of resources was summoned to fight the fast-growing wildfire, but an attack from the air was stymied by strong winds that fueled the flames.
The National Weather Service in Pueblo reported wind gusts up to 79 mph outside Wetmore just before 1 p.m. Tuesday. By 5:20 p.m., winds were gusting at 40-65 mph out of the southwest, said Kathy Torgerson, a meteorologist with the weather service.
Although the wind was expected to decrease to an average of 15-30 mph, she said gusts could still reach 70 mph.
By Thursday night, the area could receive a couple of inches of snow, she added.
Two hot shot crews were to spend Tuesday night building a line to contain the “long, narrow” fire, said Ralph Bellah, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.
More resources, including a Type II crew and air support are expected to arrive Wednesday, he said.
More than 100 firefighters were working on the fire as of Tuesday night, officials with the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office said.
The fire may have started at a house, possibly a residential construction site, east of Wetmore and was fueled by gusty winds and a parched landscape, officials said.
Evacuations began about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday and were expected to remain in place at least until Wednesday.
About half of the evacuated homes are in Custer County’s Wetmore and Greenwood, and about half are in Pueblo County, said Micki Trost, public information officer with the Colorado Office of Emergency Management.
The Pueblo County evacuation area is about four miles from the Custer County line off Highway 96 West between North Creek and Siloam roads, said Anna Gonzalez, the Pueblo County Sheriffs Office’s public information officer.
The First Southern Baptist Church in Florence, north of Wetmore, and the Church of the Nazarene, 84 Stanford Ave. in Pueblo, were designated as shelters. At least 25 families had checked into the Baptist Church by early evening, officials said.
The Colorado State Fairgrounds in Pueblo was taking in livestock and large animals, and the Pueblo Animal Shelter, at 4600 Eagleridge Circle, became home to household pets.
Emergency Fire Funding was approved at 3:15 p.m., and a Federal Emergency Management Agency Fire Management Assistance Grant was approved at 4:45 p.m.
Speaking from the fire’s command post at the Wetmore Volunteer Fire Department Tuesday, Fremont County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Don Pinover said his hopes were that “the wind stops and they can at least get a perimeter around it.”
At the request of Custer County, Fremont County Sheriff’s Office fire investigators will work with federal investigators to determine the cause of the fire, Pinover said.
The next fire briefing is scheduled for 6 a.m. Wednesday.
In response to the fire, Care and Share Food Bank will hold a food drive Wednesday from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. at its Pueblo warehouse, 100 Greenhorn Drive.
It is seeking canned meals, boxed meals, canned meat, spaghetti sauce, noodles, peanut butter and jelly.
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