By Kristen Wyatt Associated Press
DENVER — Hot, windy conditions across Colorado left firefighters battling multiple wildfires Thursday, with new evacuations ordered in a fire season that includes the most destructive blaze in state history.
The East Peak Fire in southern Colorado’s Huerfano County ballooned to an estimated 14 square miles, according to state emergency management officials, and prompted evacuation orders near La Veta. The Huerfano County Courthouse in Walsenburg was closed as a precaution. Neighboring Las Animas County also evacuated an unknown number of homes, Las Animas County Sheriff James Casias said.
State officials estimated around 700 people were evacuated.
More than 170 Boy Scouts camping in the mountains of the Spanish Peaks left the area Wednesday, The Denver Post reported. Michael Stewart, executive director of the Boy Scouts of America’s Santa Fe Trail Council, told the newspaper they left after a scout spotted smoke and a staff member reported seeing flames.
Evacuations also were ordered in southwest Colorado, where two backcountry fires started by lightning earlier this month were growing.
The largest, the West Fork Fire, nearly tripled in size to nearly 20 square miles between Wednesday and Thursday. It started a spot fire across the Continental Divide, closing two campgrounds.
Hot and windy conditions also pushed the Windy Pass Fire to 700 acres and within a quarter-mile of structures on the south side of the Wolf Creek Ski Area.
Both fires have been fueled by large swaths of beetle-killed trees.
Fire response spokeswoman Anne Jeffery said crews were working to keep flames away from the ski resort now that the area burning has fewer dead trees and some open spaces.
Evacuations were ordered from the top of Wolf Creek Pass along Highway 160 east to city limits of South Fork, not including the city itself.
Several other fires were burning around the state.
A blaze near Colorado Springs that has claimed two lives and more than 500 homes was fully contained Thursday, but investigators were still scouring for clues about the cause of the fire, which broke out June 11.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said investigators were on their hands and knees using magnifying glasses to go over a 28-square-foot area in the Black Forest Fire. He said they have all but ruled out natural causes but wouldn’t release any other details.
Maketa said evacuation calls were made to the home phone of the couple who died, but it’s not clear if they ever got the message.
As temperatures and winds picked up on the last day before summer, Coloradans were also affected by smoke from fires outside the state’s borders. Wildfires in Utah and Arizona sent smoke into Dinosaur National Monument as well as Grand Junction and other towns near the borders.
The Colorado health department issued wildfire smoke advisories Thursday for parts of metro Denver and stretching south to include Colorado Springs. Smoke advisories were also issued for many southern and central Colorado towns, including Pueblo, Cripple Creek and La Junta.
People in smoke-affected areas were advised to limit outdoor exercise. The elderly, young and sick were advised to stay indoors.