DENVER (AP) — A mandatory evacuation order has sent thousands of people fleeing from their homes near Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado as wildfire officials on Saturday brace for wind gusts up to 55 mph (89 kph).
All of Estes Park, which has a population of 6,400 people, and nearby communities been told to evacuate, said Jered Kramer, a spokesman for the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.
On Saturday, the Red Cross said more than 2,000 people are seeking refuge in American Red Cross shelters. More than 9,880 hotel rooms are being used across 37 hotels.
The evacuation order comes after authorities identified an elderly couple who refused to leave their home near Grand Lake and were found dead Friday.
Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin in a Facebook video message said Lyle and Marylin Hileman, aged 86 and 84 respectively, had earlier in the week refused help even as the fire and smoke reached their property. Their last known words were in a call to their son, saying calmly and adamantly that they would stay in their basement.
“It would be late Thursday before confirmation would come that the house was destroyed but our family feels comfort in the knowledge our parents left this world together and on their own terms,” Schroetlin said, reading a message from the family.
The East Troublesome fire, which has also closed Rocky Mountain National Park, has destroyed around 294 square miles (762 square kilometers) — an area larger than the city of Chicago.
The National Weather Service on Saturday issued a red flag warning in effect through 7 p.m. Saturday because of the high winds and low humidity levels.
By Sunday, a winter storm is expected to bring snow and sub-zero temperatures, which officials hope will tame the fire’s activity and growth.
The second-largest wildfire in Colorado state history was only 4% contained as of Saturday morning. Gov. Jared Polis said Friday that the wildfire was likely caused by human activity.
There’s been no official estimate of the damage, but Schroetlin on Friday noted “lots of structural loss” on the west side of the fire. Kramer from the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office also said they believe everyone is accounted for on the east side of the fire.
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