Firefighters battle blaze near Royal Gorge | AspenTimes.com

Firefighters battle blaze near Royal Gorge

The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

In this photo provided by Royal Gorge Rafting taken on Monday, June 21, 2010, shrubs and trees burn during a fire in Royal Gorge near Canon City, Colo. The fire has forced the evacuations of homes and businesses in the area west of Canon City. (AP Photo/Royal Gorge Rafting, James Whiteside)

CANON CITY, Colo. – Firefighters on Tuesday battled a 700-acre wildfire burning west of Canon City that has destroyed and damaged several structures and forced families from their homes.

The fire, burning near the scenic Royal Gorge Bridge, was 15 percent contained as firefighters took advantage of milder-than-expected weather.

Multiple fire starts were reported in the area Monday and the cause of the blaze remains under investigation.

At least one home was destroyed by the fire. Fremont County Coroner Dorothy Twellman told KKTV in Colorado Springs that she lost her home and barn, but was able to save her horses.

Cass Cairns, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, declined to comment on a witness account that a tourist railroad that runs through the gorge sparked the fire.

Jimmy Whiteside, the co-owner of Royal Gorge Rafting and Royal Gorge Vacation Rentals, said he and his wife were cleaning rental properties along the Arkansas River when the 12:30 p.m. Royal Gorge Route Railroad train from Canon City passed by their property Monday. Less than a minute after it passed, Whiteside said several bushes were in flames.

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Whiteside said he called 911, his business partner and the fire chief to report the fires and then put out the fire closest to his property using a bucket of water from the river. However, he said other fires sparked by the train had grown too large to put out.

Whiteside said he pulled over a rafting expedition on Friday to put out another fire he said was sparked by the train.

“I think it could have been prevented,” said Whiteside, who estimates he lost about $10,000 in business on Tuesday as visitors stayed away from the area.

Railroad owner Mark Greksa said he knew of no evidence that the train ignited the fires. He said the train’s engine has been designed to minimize fire hazards in what is a dry part of Colorado. Authorities are exploring various possible causes, he added.

“We’ll just let them do their investigation,” Greksa said.

The train didn’t run Tuesday but planned to resume operations Wednesday.

After the fires broke out, the Fremont County sheriff’s office notified 177 phone customers – business and residential – to evacuate. Fire crews worked to prevent the fire from crossing U.S. Highway 50 and early Tuesday some of those evacuated were allowed to return to their homes and businesses.

Black Hills Energy was repairing damaged power lines and restoring power to about 70 homes.

Other areas, including the suspension bridge that crosses the 1,200-foot-deep Royal Gorge over the Arkansas River, remained off limits. River rafting through the gorge has also been shut down because of the fire.

Cairns didn’t know how many people were still being kept away from their homes. She said more crews were headed to the area and the number of people working on the fire was expected to increase to about 275 Wednesday.

Crews were getting help from aircraft brought in to fight a larger fire in the Great Sand Dunes National Park to the south. That 4,766-acre wildfire on steep terrain wasn’t threatening any homes. The park has remained open since the fire began June 6 with a lightning strike.

The risk of wildfires across much of western and southern Colorado remained high because of dry, warm weather and expected strong winds.