Mary Shinn and John Schroyer
LAKE GEORGE • Firefighters fear a wildfire a that roared through 450 acres in a few hours Sunday near the Elevenmile Reservoir will grow Monday with the aid of warm temperatures and 30 mph winds.
The blaze was reported just after noon in Elevenmile Canyon, a legendary fly fishing spot just south of Lake George, a few miles into Teller County on Highway 24. The blaze, called the Springer fire doubled in size and doubled again as it scorched through tinder-dry Ponderosa pine, hitting 450 acres by evening and sending up a plume of smoke visible in Colorado Springs and Denver.
VIDEO: Springer fire
Flames forced the evacuation of more than 150 homes and sent hundreds of campers, including scores of Boy Scouts at a nearby camp scurrying for safety.
Forecasts of 80-degree temperatures and stiff winds Monday drove fear among residents and firefighters alike Sunday night. The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning.
“We definitely expect that thing to get up and move on us in the morning,” said Forest Service spokesman Gregg Goodland.
Subdivisions around lake George were ghost towns Sunday night, with some residents taking shelter in schools in Woodland Park and Divide where the Red Cross set up facilities. Animals were being evacuated to the Teller County Fairgrounds in Cripple Creek.
Evacuations were ordered for Lake George’s Wagon Tongue, Echo Valley, Circle C Ranch and Beaver Ranch subdivisions.
Residents along County Roads 98 and 403 were also told to flee
Evacuations remained possible in Teller County, officials warned.
MORE ONLINE: Learn about fire danger in the Pikes Peak region and see an interactive map showing how many people are living in places at risk for wildfires. CLICK HERE
Already battling a massive blaze in northern Colorado, federal fire officials sent everything they could to Lake George in a bid to avoid another wildland disaster.
By nightfall 100 firefighters were at work, with trucks, helicopters and air tankers. Facing stiff winds, firefighters tried to get ahead of the Springer fire, but were forced to let some areas burn.
“If this fire is cranking, I’m not sending firefighters in there,” explained Goodland.
Goodland said the firefighters were doing everything they could to stop Springer’s progress.
“We have some amazing skill out there,” he said.
By 5 p.m., nine tanker aircraft and several helicopters had joined the fight, but the blaze remained uncontained.
Locals watched and worried.
“Whenever you see a fire in the mountains, that’s your worst enemy,” said Ron Demarais, from Florissant.
As he watched the firefighting effort, Demarais said that fuel, wind and heat could win.
“It’s like spitting on a bonfire.”
Others looked to a higher power for help.
“It’s all in God’s hands now,” said Rebecca Starkweather, who owns Starkey’s store at the mouth of the Elevenmile Canyon.
The fire was pushed north and east by stiff winds that exceeded 20 mph at times Sunday.
Persistent rumors about what started the blaze swirled with the smoke in Lake George, but Goodland said no cause had been determined.
He chuckled at a local tale that the blaze began when someone shot a bullet into a full canister of propane, but did not dismiss it outright.
Several locals heard about the gunfire causing the blaze, but first-hand accounts couldn’t be found. The wife of a volunteer firefighter for the Lake George Fire Protection District, Sonja Oliver said she heard on her husband’s fire radio that the blaze started with an explosion near a dude ranch called Indian Paintbrush Ranch.
She described dense forest in the area as “a cavern of trees.”
Oliver lives on County Road 90, and said she could see the fire growing around 2:30 p.m.
“You can see an orange glow from the fire,” she said.
The blaze close off one of Park County’s top tourist spots.
County Roads 92 and 96 were closed at Highway 24. Camp Alexander and Blue Mountain Ranch have been evacuated. At Sanborn Western Camps, 380 campers and staff were forced to flee, the camp’s executive director, Jane Sanborn said.
When the fire first started, Frank Castro, a resident of Elevenmile Village, said he could see the fire as he was leaving town.
“It looked to be in an area where the terrain would be hard to get to,” he said.
By 9:30 p.m., firefighters were grabbing food and rest as the once-roaring fire glowed in the woods.
Goodland said they’ll keep watch on the fire all night, but it was clear that cooler temperatures and calm evening breezes had done what firefighters couldn’t do under Sunday’s sun.
But that sun, heat and wind will be back.
So will the flames., and the firefighters, Goodland said.