Donna Dundon, left, and Arianna Roupinian of Fort Collins, Colo., watch… (Helen H. Richardson / Denver…)
Officials warned Sunday evening that a wildfire "continues to grow" as firefighters combat tough terrain and fire-spreading winds in northern Colorado — just one of several blazes threatening residents in the western U.S.
New evacuations were ordered for the High Park fire 15 miles west of Fort Collins in the Crystal Mountain area.
“The burning pattern of High Park fire could potentially cut off exit routes for residents in this area and they should leave now,” authorities said on an official website for tracking the fire response.
About 2,200 evacuation notices have been given since Saturday, and 18 buildings have been damaged or destroyed.
Officials suspect lightning caused the fire, which affected just two acres on Saturday morning until strong winds quickly fanned it into a 14,000-acre inferno by Sunday evening.
The fire sent up heavy smoke, obscuring the sun and creating an eerie, orange dusk in the middle of the day, according to the Associated Press. The smell drifted into the Denver area and smoke spread as far away as central Nebraska, western Kansas and Texas.
A Colorado wolf sanctuary was forced to evacuate 11 wolves, the Associated Press reported. Nineteen more wolves remained at the sanctuary, which has underground bunkers to shelter animals during fires, KUSA-TV in Denver reported.
The new wildfire has officials worried about resources getting stretched too thin, with other fires in Wyoming (now facing a 8,493-acre blaze being fought by 405 personnel) and New Mexico (278,039 acres for the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire, 644 personnel; 26,000 acres for the Little Bear fire, 144 personnel).
"We're definitely competing with fires in New Mexico and other areas," Nick Christensen, an executive officer with the Larimer County Sheriff's Office, told the Denver Post.
The Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire in New Mexico, now 37% contained under incredibly difficult firefighting terrain and dry weather conditions, has almost doubled the old record for the largest fire in New Mexico history, which used to be 156,593 acres.
Another New Mexico fire, near the mountain community of Ruidoso, is considered a bigger threat because it's closer to more homes, officials told the Associated Press; they estimated a few hundred people had evacuated Ruidoso and encouraged Capitan, N.M., residents to get ready to leave if necessary.
"Any communities around this fire have the potential of being evacuated," Karen Takai, a spokeswoman for the Ruidoso fire crews, told the Associated Press. "If I lived in Capitan, I definitely would be prepared. Don't wait until the sheriff's office comes knocking at your door and tells you to evacuate."
The Colorado High Park fire has not been contained by the 250 personnel now fighting it, and officials say it has a high growth potential in the rough land around High Park, which is filled with trees killed by bark beetles.
As of 5 a.m. Sunday, officials had evacuated highways and canyons around the fire and reported more evacuations for the areas south and west of Bellvue, including Lory State Park, Red Stone Canyon and Buckhorn Road from Masonville up to Stove Prairie School.
Kathie Walter and her husband helped friends several miles away evacuate from the Colorado fire Saturday, according to an Associated Press report. When they got home, they were surprised to get a call warning them to be ready to evacuate just in case. But Walter didn't want to wait.
"Smoke was coming in hard," Kathie Walter told the Associated Press. "We could not see flames or orange or black smoke. But we didn't need to see anymore. We just said, 'Hey, let's get out of here.' "