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Royal Gorge fire moving away from populated area

By: Daniel Chacon and Jesse Paul
June 12, 2013 Updated: June 12, 2013 at 11:34 am
Caption +
Visitors and employees leave the Royal Gorge Bridge park as smoke billows skyward Tuesday afternoon, June 11, 2013, from a fire near the gorge in western Fremont County west of Canon City, Colo. The fire burning on an estimated 300 acres south of the Royal Gorge Bridge and the Arkansas River led to the evacuation of the park, the Bureau of Land Management said. (AP Photo/The Pueblo Chieftain, Brian Bowen)

CANON CITY - The Royal Gorge Bridge is so far believed to be undamaged and intact and firefighters have made some progress in battling the Royal Gorge Fire that continues to burn here outside the city, according to the Forest Service and local officials.

At a 9 a.m. press conference Wednesday morning, Fire Information Officer Greg Goodland told reporters that the fire, which is still engulfing 3,800 acres of land near the Royal Gorge Park, has not been contained at all. Goodland says he expects a wind change to blow the blaze northwest, away from Canon City and towards Highway 50.

"We are staying continuously optimistic about what we can do out there in these very difficult firefighting conditions," he said.

About 150 firefighters, a heavy air tanker, two single engine slurry planes, three helicopters and a number of other vehicle apparatuses are expected to be reinforced by more personnel and equipment this afternoon. So far, there have been no evacuations or pre-evacuations of Canon City, though scores of people were evacuated from the areas directly around the fire near Highway 50 Tuesday afternoon.

Though fire has crossed the Arkansas River near the Royal Gorge Bridge and is now surrounding the structure on all sides, Goodland said he is still "unaware" of any damage or destruction to it.

The Royal Gorge fire has destroyed three structures near Canon City. The soaring suspension bridge spanning a canyon across the Arkansas River is intact.

Fire district spokesman Mike Smith says firefighters are using the bridge, which is has wood planking but is suspended by steel supports and is undamaged. Winds are expected to push the blaze away from Canon City Wednesday, sparing structures. Smith predicted that lighter winds and cooler temperatures expected Wednesday would assist firefighters.

Goodland said that firefighters confirmed and that many park animals at the Royal Gorge Bridge were unharmed as of Tuesday morning, but that it was possible the fire claimed some of them.

Hundreds of evacuees also are waiting to hear if and when they will be able to return to their homes.

Three structures have been lost, according to the Bureau of Land Management, but no injuries were reported. The bridge over the gorge is not believed to have been damaged by the fire, which jumped the Arkansas River, driven by gusting winds.

Fremont County Commissioner Debbie Bell saw the fire near the bridge and said she would be surprised if it survived.

On Tuesday Fremont County Commissioner Debbie Bell saw the fire near the bridge and said she would be surprised if it survived.

U.S. 50 was still closed in both directions between CO 9 and Canon City, according to CDOT.

Late Tuesday the Colorado Department of Corrections evacuated 905 inmates from the Territorial Prison, also known as "Old Max," in Canon City. All were moved to other DOC facilities.

At about 4:30 p.m. flames were reported to be 30 feet high and approaching the highway from the south along a two-mile front. All of the businesses along the highway were closed and everyone was being evacuated.

"The wildfire is still creating some havoc," said Bob Wilson, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. "No estimated time for reopen."

Everywhere in Canon City, people's eyes were fixed west where thick, black smoke was pouring north. Near the Royal Gorge turnoff on Highway 50, as of 4 p.m. it was a ghost town.

As business owners tried to hurry away guests from campgrounds, zip lines, restaurants, and guided raft tour shops, firefighters and police zipped up and down the highway with their emergency lights activated.

Brandi Grandon, 43, stood outside the Arkansas River Tours where police were turning people back down Highway 50 toward Canon City, and watched in horror as the fire crept toward her. Grandon, whose home was roughly a half mile from the nearest flames, was getting ready to evacuate.

"It's moving really quick," she said. "I called the sheriff's office and they said there's nothing to worry about. But to me, it's moving really fast. This is horrifying."

The Pike Interagency Hotshot Crew, based in Monument, is fighting the fire, which is being fought by about 150 firefighters.

The blaze was reported before 1 p.m. and within an hour the smoke was visible for miles. The fire, which started on the south side of the Arkansas River, jumped to the north side, according to the BLM.

Mandatory evacuations are in effect from Parkdale to Soda Point, north of the gorge. A BLM spokesman said he expected the fire, racing through a pinon-juniper landscape, to remain active for the next few days.

By 3:30 p.m. a caravan of homeowners was being allowed in to evacuate pets. At the same time officials were trying to organize the evacuation of passengers on the Royal Gorge Railway train and several groups of river rafters also needed to be evacuated.

Resources on scene include three fire engines, one airtack plane, one helitack crew, one hotshot crew, one 20-person crew, multiple county resources and one BLM and forest service firefighting squad, the BLM said. More resources are on the way. Two single-engine airtankers, one Type 1 hotshot crew, three hand crews and one Type 3 Incident Management Team have been called in to help.

According to the National Weather Service, wind speeds at the gorge were at 30 to 40 mph, and the temperature was 95 degrees.

Some were trying to organize rescue efforts amid the chaotic conditions.

"It's too dangerous to get anywhere up there right now," said Clay Maulin, who works for the Royal Gorge Railroad. "We're just trying to get people off."

He was referring to passengers on the Royal Gorge Railway who were not in danger but were stranded by the fire, awaiting evacuation.

Peggy Gair, human resources and public relations manager for the Royal Gorge, said "several hundred people" have been evacuated from the park.

Pueblo Community College Fremont Campus was evacuated Tuesday along with Eight-Mile Hill and homes and businesses along Colo. 9.

The Red Cross is opening an evacuation center at Evangelical Free Church, 3000 E. Main St., in Canon City.

An animal and livestock shelter has been set up at Pathfinder Park off Highway 115 between Canon City and Florence.

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