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Monster wildfire rages in Colorado (+video)

Thousands flee homes as western wildfires persist. Utah's Governor Gary Herbert estimates the fire has caused millions of dollars worth of damage. Soot and smoke also worry residents. 

By Keith CoffmanReuters / June 26, 2012

Two lines of fire move across a hillside above a subdivision in the Waldo Canyon fire, west of Colorado Springs. A monster Colorado wildfire took a turn for the worse as hot winds pushed flames north, prompting the evacuation of 7,000 more people, officials said.

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

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COLORADO SPRINGS

A monster Colorado wildfire raging near some of the most visited tourist areas in the state took a turn for the worse on Tuesday as hot winds pushed flames north, prompting the evacuation of 7,000 more people, officials said.

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The Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs forces thousands of residents from their homes as almost a dozen fires continue to burn in the western state. Sarah Irwin reports.

Colorado's so-called Waldo Canyon fire sent a mushroom cloud of smoke nearly 20,000 feet (6,100 metres) into the air over Colorado Springs near Pikes Peak, whose breathtaking vistas from the summit helped inspire the song "America the Beautiful".

Closer to the blaze, which has been fanned by winds blowing into the Southern Rockies from the prairies to the east, trees were visibly twisting from the heat of the flames.

The latest evacuations brought the total number of people forced from their homes to about 12,000 as the blaze posed a renewed threat to hundreds of dwellings and appeared to have roared to within about a mile (1.6 km) of the U.S. Air Force Academy grounds in Colorado Springs.

Operators of a famous cog railway that carries tourists up to Pikes Peak said the trains would remain shut down on Tuesday for a third straight day.

The highway that leads up to Pikes Peak has been closed since shortly after the fire erupted on Saturday, as has the popular Garden of the Gods, a picturesque park of tall, rocky spires and oddly balanced boulders.

Air tankers dropped fire retardant in the blaze's path to slow its advance, while firefighters on the ground battled to protect homes along a highway at the mountain's edge, including the upscale, gated community of Cedar Heights. No homes were reported burned, but the fire consumed a wooden tent platform.

"We're feeling pretty good that's the only thing we've lost given this monster we are dealing with," said Rob Deyerberg, a fire information officer.

The closures around Pikes Peak, billed as the world's second-most visited mountain after Japan's Mount Fuji, have drawn attention to the fire's negative impact on the tourism industry just at the start of the peak summer travel season.

After three days, the blaze has scorched an estimated 4,500 acres (1,821 hectares), and fire crews managed to carve containment lines around just 5 percent of its perimeter. The cause was still under investigation.

A recreation area belonging to the Air Force Academy was ordered evacuated due to its proximity to the fire, and all trails leading west of the school were closed, the base said.

'Trying to Remain Optimistic' 

Despite the fresh evacuations, the town of Manitou Springs, which had been evacuated over the weekend, appeared to remain out of imminent danger after residents were allowed back on Sunday.

Pam Staley, 60, a Colorado Springs resident, said she was concerned about the health effects of thick smoke and soot on many of her elderly neighbors who live in older homes without air conditioning.

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