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Colorado wildfires char homes, thousands of acres, force prison evacuation

Entire neighborhoods have been devoured by the flames that now threaten 2,500 properties, driven by strong winds and dry brush. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

A series of Colorado wildfires drove thousands of people from their homes Wednesday, scorching wide swaths of wooded residential land near Colorado Springs and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of inmates from an area prison.

More than 900 prisoners were transported overnight from the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, which houses many inmates with medical needs, to other prisons, corrections spokesman Adrienne Jacobson told The Associated Press.

"This was done as a precaution because it takes a lot of time to move the prisoners," Jacobson said. The prison is about an hour from Colorado Springs.

A red flag warning was in effect for western Colorado plus the Colorado Springs area Wednesday as temperatures approaching 100 degrees and strong winds contributed to "critical fire weather conditions," the National Weather Service reported. 

City officials issued a voluntary evacuation order Wednesday afternoon for northern parts of Colorado Springs itself east of Interstate 25. No deaths or injuries had been reported, but authorities strongly urged people to obey the warnings.

Gov. John Hickenlooper issued a disaster declaration, opening the door to $5.5 million in emergency funding.

The largest of the blazes, the Black Forest fire in El Paso County, had grown to between 8,500 and 12,000 acres Wednesday afternoon, covering 48 square miles. It had already destroyed 92 homes as it chewed its way toward Colorado Springs, authorities said.

"As you can tell, weather is not working with us, but our guys are giving it a heck of a shot," El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said. "The challenge we're facing is a lack of manpower."

More than 450 firefighters and 130 law enforcement personnel were at work to quench the flames, whose cause remained unknown. Because much of the fire scene has no hydrant system, crews were having to truck in water past exploding propane and other fuel tanks, and "with each of those efforts, you're losing time and square footage," Maketa said.

Firefighters were working to contain wildfires that have already destroyed or damaged dozens of homes. Nicole Gonzales reports.

Some residents who had resisted earlier evacuation orders later "changed their minds" as the fire grew, Maketa said. But many insisted on staying behind, and he warned that they were putting themselves in dire danger.

"I know we had people stay in there, and I do have concerns that we could be facing a tragedy that involves people," he said. 

The El Paso County Fairground began accepting evacuated large animals as well as RVs and campers as the Black Forest fire remained zero percent contained Wednesday morning, the sheriff's office said.

Rep. Doug Lamborn, who represents the area in Congress, said in a statement that the fire was especially frightening with the memory of the Waldo Canyon fire — the most destructive on the record books in Colorado — still fresh. That fire forced the evacuations of 35,000 people and destroyed 346 homes when it burned through the Colorado Springs area in 2012.

One aircraft and dozens of firefighters worked to contain the Royal Gorge fire near Cañon City after the blaze was reported around 1 p.m. (3 p.m. ET) Tuesday. U.S. Highway 50 and local roads were closed as mandatory evacuations were put into effect for the surrounding area.

The fire had burned through around 3,000 acres and consumed 20 structures as of Wednesday. Authorities said containment was around 20 percent by late Wednesday, an improvement from reports earlier in the day.

"We're managing a very difficult fire, and we're actually gaining some ground on this thing," said Royal Gorge fire spokesman Gregg Goodland.

However, he warned that the fire "is not going to go away any time soon, especially under the dry conditions."

Officials expressed concern for the Royal Gorge Bridge, a suspension bridge that sits more than 950 feet over the Arkansas River, as the fire burned on either side. The park surrounding the bridge remained closed until further notice, General Manager Mike Bandera said.

A fire started by a lightning strike also broke out Monday afternoon in a remote section of Rocky Mountain National Park and had grown to 400 acres by Wednesday morning, authorities said.

Park officials usually let naturally occurring fires burn themselves out, but they've decided to try to put out what they've dubbed the Big Meadows fire, NBC station KUSA of Denver reported.

A 28-year-old man was killed Monday in California when he was struck by a falling tree while battling a fire in the northern part of the state.

Norma Rubio of NBC News contributed to this report.

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