Windswept Colorado wildfire prompts evacuations, closure of national park

FILE PHOTO: Flames work through trees near a road block as the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado's history, burns outside Estes Park, Colorado, U.S. October 16, 2020. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

(Reuters) - An explosive Colorado wildfire that has already forced several evacuations prompted the closure of Rocky Mountain National Park on Thursday as officials expected high winds to give firefighters another challenging day.

"We anticipate another day of large fire growth," incident commander Noel Livingston said at a Thursday morning briefing on the East Troublesome Fire, one of nearly a dozen fires burning across the state.

The windswept blaze raced over about 20 miles (32 km) of rugged terrain on Wednesday, scorching about 100,000 acres (40,470 hectares) of grass and timber in extremely dry conditions, Livingston said.

The fire, which spread into Rocky Mountain National Park, prompted the National Park Service on Thursday to close the entire 415 square-mile (668-square-km) expanse early on Thursday. The park's west entrance was closed on Wednesday as the fire began encroaching.

The National Weather Service was forecasting continued hot, dry, windy conditions in much of Colorado, but snow and much colder weather are expected this weekend.

Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin has ordered several evacuations in the area, including the tiny lakeside community of Grand Lake, which has a population of about 470.

The fire, which at times spread at a rate of 6,000 acres per hour on Wednesday, has overwhelmed firefighters, Schroetlin said.

"Today has been an extremely, extremely challenging day for our community," he said in a video posted around midnight on Wednesday

The East Troublesome Fire, which has consumed 125,600 acres (50,830 hectares) since it started last week, is only 5% contained, officials said. The cause is still under investigation.

The blaze is among the latest in a brutal fire season following a long period of drought across Colorado.

In the northern part of the state, the Cameron Peak Fire has been burning since mid-August, setting the state record for largest wildfire. It has burned more than 207,000 acres (83770 hectares) overall and scorched swaths of Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests.

On Tuesday, helicopters rescued 23 hikers and three dogs from San Juan National Forest where the small but dangerous Ice Fire had broken out on Monday in Colorado's southwestern corner near the small former mining town of Silverton.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York)

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