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Originally published June 25, 2012 at 7:38 PM | Page modified June 26, 2012 at 11:48 AM

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Wildfires in Rockies threaten summer tourism

A series of wildfires in the Rocky Mountains and other regions of the West has prompted evacuation of homes and popular tourist destinations.

The New York Times

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COLORADO SPRINGS — Already choking through one of the worst wildfire seasons in recent memory, Colorado found itself dealing with a new series of blazes this week, driven by a relentless heat wave that has threatened to further fan the flames.

Near Manitou Springs, a rustic community of about 5,000 people in the foothills around Colorado Springs, the Waldo Canyon Fire, which began Saturday, has forced thousands to flee their homes, tearing through about 3,500 acres by Monday, fire officials said.

Over the weekend, with the fire closing in, 11,000 people were evacuated from the area, which was already bustling with tourists who had flocked to attractions like Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods to kick off the summer season.

Explosive wildfires have burned across much of the West in recent weeks. In southwestern New Mexico, the largest wildfire in state history has burned nearly 300,000 acres. Two small fires north of Santa Fe Sunday evening prompted brief evacuations of a handful of homes. One of the blazes threatened the historic El Santuario de Chimayo, a 19th-century church that receives almost 300,000 visitors per year, but the church appeared out of danger Monday.

In Utah, firefighters were nearing full containment of the Dump Fire, which forced thousands from their homes before evacuation orders were lifted Saturday.

Evacuation orders were lifted for Manitou Springs but remained for some of the other tiny mountain communities tucked around Colorado Springs. And with temperatures reaching well into the 90s on Monday, and summer winds whipping through the mountains, the 450 firefighters battling the blaze were bracing for another tough day.

"We've got near-record-setting temperatures and extremely low moisture," Rob Deyerberg, the fire information officer, said Monday morning. A smoky haze cloaked the mountains around Colorado Springs, and throughout the city, the talk was of the fire's developments.

Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said that about half the nation's personnel dedicated to fighting large wildfires was focused on Colorado, where more than a half-dozen fires were burning. Conditions there have not been this dangerous in a decade.

The High Park Fire, which has been burning for weeks near Fort Collins and is one of the largest and most destructive blazes in the state's history, has burned more than 83,000 acres and 248 homes. It is 45 percent contained.

Tidwell said this year's especially virulent fire season in Colorado, while not unexpected, had arrived earlier than usual.

At a Red Cross evacuation center at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, some of those who had fled the Waldo Canyon Fire wondered if their homes were still standing — and when they would be able to find out for certain.

Jeff Lira said he rushed from his home in Cascade when the fire hit. "I seen the flames shooting over 100 feet. I thought it was a tornado until I saw those flames," he said.

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