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Fear, anxiety mount as uncontained wildfires sizzle in Colorado

By Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 11:48 PM EDT, Wed June 12, 2013
Plumes of smoke rise above Del Norte Peak in Colorado on Sunday, June 23. Fires have been burning across Colorado since early June. Plumes of smoke rise above Del Norte Peak in Colorado on Sunday, June 23. Fires have been burning across Colorado since early June.
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Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: One of the highest bridges in world still standing, park spokeswoman says
  • Evacuation orders issued for about 9,000 people over 55 square miles
  • "My family is scared and trying to remain calm," a Colorado mother says
  • The Royal Gorge Fire southwest of Colorado Springs also isn't contained

(CNN) -- Sad. Helpless. Shaken.

That's how Morgan Pace felt as she drove past a large plume of smoke near her home in Monument, Colorado, which is about 20 miles north of Colorado Springs. It wasn't an isolated fire, but a large and growing conflagration that has spurred thousands to flee their homes.

"It was just surreal," said Pace, a CNN iReporter.

Fear and anxiety were common Wednesday in much of central Colorado thanks not just to one, but two major wildfires that have threatened lives and property.

Pace, a 38-year-old mother of four, is among tens of thousands affected directly and indirectly by the Black Forest Fire.

So, too, is Lisa Aggarwal. After a sleepless night, she packed up and left her Colorado Springs home on Wednesday -- a hot and blue sky day, except for the looming smoke -- along with her three young children.

"My family is scared and just trying to remain calm," Aggarwal, another iReporter, said Wednesday.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Black Forest Fire had spread to 8,500 acres -- none of which were considered "contained" -- according to the Colorado Office of Emergency Management.

"We have some very unpredictable conditions," El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said at an early media briefing. "Priorities are saving lives (including) protecting first responders and firefighters."

At an afternoon update, he said the winds had shifted and moved the fire in two directions. He anticipated the fire would continue to grow by 3,000 acres.

Mandatory evacuation orders, which extended over a 55-square-mile area, affected about 9,000 people in more than 3,400 households.

Thankfully, as of Wednesday afternoon, there were no reports of casualties, but one person might be missing, Maketa said.

Still, at least 92 structures were labeled as lost.

Alicia Welch had two reasons to worry: Her son was out at a day camp before the flames forced them to head home, and her husband was still out hiking in another endangered area with Boy Scouts.

"He said that a lot of the boys, the Scouts he knew what was going on. The leaders care about their families and what's going on at home," Welch told CNN, her comments cut off as she broke down for a moment, overwhelmed with emotion.

The Royal Gorge Fire, meanwhile, is burning on the other side of Colorado Springs, about 55 miles to the southwest.

Authorities downgraded the number of acres burned from 3,800 to 3,100 late Wednesday. It was less than half the size of the Black Forest Fire. But it likewise was 0% contained and had damaged at least three structures, the state office of emergency management reported.

It triggered the precautionary evacuation of some 905 inmates from the Centennial Correctional Facility, located in Canon City, between midnight and 9 a.m. Wednesday. Most of the inmates are "special needs" -- meaning they receive medical treatment -- said state corrections department spokeswoman Alison Morgan.

The famous Royal Gorge Bridge that spans the Arkansas River is still intact but needs to be inspected before it can reopen for tourists, a spokeswoman for the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park said.

The suspension bridge, which is 956 feet above the river and among the highest in the world, is made of more than 1,000 wooden planks.

"We did not know until today whether the bridge was still standing," Peggy Gair said.

Gair says fire at the park burned a visitor's center, a tramway building, a carousel and several restaurants.

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There were other fires in the state as well, including in Grand and Huerfano Counties. Statewide, officials warned that such blazes have proven tough to handle due to a combination of factors.

"Fire severity is extreme as reported in multiple areas," the state office of emergency management said, "and fires are escaping initial attack, as evident by the number of large fires."

CNN's Ashley Fantz, Ed Payne, Dave Alsup, Steve Almasy and Carma Hassan contributed to this report.

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