By Keith Coffman
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., June 12 (Reuters) - A wind-whipped wildfire menaced Colorado's second-largest city on Wednesday, forcing thousands of residents to flee flames that have destroyed more than 90 homes in a wooded subdivision.
The fast-moving blaze was raging out of control about 15 miles (24 km) northeast of Colorado Springs, devouring additional homes into the evening as winds sent the flames doubling back into areas that already had burned, El Paso County authorities said.
'Properties that we identified as standing are now engulfed in flames, so the numbers are changing as we speak,' Sheriff Terry Maketa told a news conference.
Evacuee Jeff Stemas, 44, who fled with his wife, three dogs, a file cabinet and a computer on Tuesday as flames neared their house, learned hours later from a website set up to track property losses that their home was among those destroyed.
'It's a total loss,' he said with quiet resignation, shrugging his shoulders. 'But I expected it.'
The blaze, which started Tuesday and quickly ripped through wooded rolling hills around the community of Black Forest, comes amid concerns that persistent drought could intensify this year's fire season in the western United States.
'It's a very hot, very active, difficult fire,' county spokesman Dave Rose said.
Police issued a voluntary evacuation alert, advising residents to be prepared to flee at a moment's notice, on Wednesday evening for parts of Colorado Springs itself.
The so-called Black Forest fire was burning about 30 miles (48 km) east of where another massive blaze destroyed more than 300 homes on the western edge of the city less than a year ago, killed an elderly couple and forced the evacuation of some 3,500 people.
Another fire on Tuesday in a neighboring county forced the closure of one of the state's top tourist attractions, the Royal Gorge Bridge, and the overnight evacuation of more than 900 inmates from a prison to other correctional facilities.
Investigators were seeking the cause of both fires.
Maketa said the Black Forest blaze quickly reached a residential community northeast of Colorado Springs, where he said at least 92 homes were listed as total losses and five more were 'partially affected.'
Evacuation notices went out earlier to 2,600 homes, comprising an estimated 7,300 people, and Army National Guard troops were deployed to help police prevent looting. The smell of smoke hung in the air in areas 30 miles (48 km) away from the blaze.
Firefighters were unable during the first two days to carve any containment lines around the Black Forest fire, which Maketa said was estimated to cover an area of 8,500 acres (3,440 hectares) and was expected to scorch at least another additional 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares). No injuries have been reported.
Towering plumes of black, gray and white smoke billowed above the broad fire line as air tankers made repeated passes over the blaze, dropping fire retardant. The blaze was especially intense at its northern flank, where leaping walls of flame engulfed trees.
Colorado Springs, with a population of about 416,000, is located between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on the west and the edge of the Great Plains on the east.
The other Colorado fire, 50 miles (80 km) to the southwest in neighboring Fremont County, also broke out on Tuesday and quickly spread to 3,800 acres (1,540 hectares).
That blaze prompted the evacuation of the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, whose span is billed as the world's highest suspension bridge, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said in a statement.
The bridge, which was not directly threatened by flames, stretches nearly 1,000 feet (300 meters) above the Arkansas River for a quarter-mile and is one of Colorado's most visible tourist destinations. Fire managers said the river was closed to rafting.
The fires came as the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that 42 percent of Colorado was experiencing exceptional or extreme drought conditions.
The National Weather Service said single-digit humidity values and temperatures in the upper 90s Fahrenheit (upper 30s Celsius), combined with wind gusts in excess of 40 miles per hour (65 kph) have created 'very high to extreme fire danger' in Colorado for most of the week.
(Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins and Laura Zuckerman; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by James Dalgleish, Cynthia Johnston, Carol Bishopric and Bill Trott) Keywords: USA FIRES/COLORADO
(Tim.Gaynor@thomsonreuters.com)(+1 480 518 0724)(Reuters Messaging: Tim.Gaynor.email@example.com)
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