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Colorado fires grow into largest in state history

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A wildfire raging across the Colorado-Wyoming border had grown into the largest of its kind in the state’s history as of Thursday, and a separate blaze that broke out in parts of the Flatirons area also threatened dozens of structures and prompted evacuations.

Officials said the fire burning about 35 miles east of Denver had burned through 40,000 acres in heavy timber, canyons and wilderness as the sun set. They warned residents to prepare for the worst, and said rain, lightning and high winds might be possible over the weekend.

But they said another incident — a grass fire that broke out Wednesday evening in the Baker Mountains near Colorado Springs — had been contained.

Water drops are seen on the top of the fire as winds whirr east over the Blue Mesa forest on the plains near Colorado Springs on Oct. 17, 2018. | Matt York/AP Photo

A helicopter lays on its side in a grass fire Thursday as a helicopter drops water on the top of the fire near Colorado Springs on Oct. 17, 2018. | Matthew Green/AP Photo

“Extreme fire activity is ongoing,” the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team said Thursday evening in a statement. “This fire is impacting private properties and the north end of Highway 24 is affected by these flows.”

Photos from about 6 p.m. Thursday showed a lightning-sparked blaze scorching vegetation, bushes and brush on all sides of a canyon bed that bisects the South Platte River. The photos showed burning logs in the upper part of the canyon and billowing white smoke rolling to the east.

Firefighters at some points could be seen hauling water from helicopters as wind gusts gusted to more than 60 mph.

The Smokey Mountain Fire, which broke out on Saturday, has destroyed 34 homes and other structures and is now estimated to be 90 percent contained, officials said. At a news conference Thursday evening, spokesmen said firefighters hope to have the blaze fully contained by the end of the week.

Crews at one point braced for the possibility of a “thermal wall” of smoke that could cloud the skies, but said, “It looks like it is heading in the direction of somewhere else.”

Containment estimates for the Windy Pass wildfire were also updated Thursday, to 80 percent from 60 percent previously.

A number of homes and businesses were being evacuated due to the Blue Mesa Fire on Wednesday night, including a community golf course, a shopping plaza and an area containing a number of homes, officials said.

“I’m certainly hoping for a close call,” said neighbor Larry Hall, 70, who has been evacuated several times over the years. He said he went to his home on top of a bluff overlooking the canyon where the flames are blazing, but didn’t see the flames get close enough to start the smoke alarm.

Steve Cisterna, a resident of Colorado Springs, was loading his pickup with supplies ahead of being evacuated late Wednesday evening.

“It’s really scary,” he said. “The best case scenario is that it stays at this peak. The worst case scenario is the fire burns out of control.”

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