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Royal Gorge Fire Damages Bridge, Most Of Park

Royal Gorge Fire
Royal Gorge Fire (credit: CBS)

CANON CITY, Colo. (CBS4/AP) — A wildfire near Royal Gorge Park has destroyed much of the park and damaged the famous bridge.

The Royal Gorge Fire has forced 250 people from their homes near Canon City since it broke out Tuesday. Fire officials revised the size of the fire to more than four square miles Wednesday, down from an earlier estimate of about six square miles, and said 20 structures have been lost.

"One of the structures that was burned on that south rim was the Barbecue Plaza eating area," local resident Tracy Harmon said.

Fire officials said winds pushed the fire away from Canon City on Wednesday.

The Royal Gorge Fire damaged buildings on both sides of Royal Gorge Park, but the famous suspension bridge over the Arkansas River appears to be in good condition, although 32 of its 1,292 wooden planks are damaged.

An aerial tram car and tram buildings on either side of the gorge are destroyed, and the tram cable has dropped into the canyon. An incline railway that descends 1,500 feet to the canyon floor is damaged.

Most of the park was destroyed and will be closed indefinitely but repairs continue on the bridge to reopen that portion as quickly as possible, with limited capacity.

The Royal Gorge Bridge is the highest suspension bridge in the United States and the eighth highest in the world.

Royal Gorge Fire
Royal Gorge Fire (credit: CBS)

In addition to threatening the 86-year-old tourist attraction, the fire forced the evacuation of more than 900 prisoners at a state prison early Wednesday.

A tourist was rafting in the area and said he had to be pulled out of the water.

"We had gone down to the river to do a little rafting trip and we got in the water and went down 100 yards and (the guides) pulled us out and we had to pull the rafts back and that's when they said they canceled the trip, and obviously they were talking about the fire," said Bob Guzzo who is visiting from North Carolina. "They did the right thing by stopping and keeping us from going into it."

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Adrienne Jacobson said prisoners from the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility were taken to other prisons overnight. The evacuation was ordered because of the danger from heavy smoke, she said. The fire has not reached the prison.

Royal Gorge Fire
Royal Gorge Fire (credit: CBS)

"This was done as a precaution because it takes a lot of time to move the prisoners," Jacobson said.

The medium- and low-risk prisoners were evacuated by bus, including 24 from an infirmary who were taken to a Denver facility, some in wheelchairs.

There are two SEATs, one large helicopter and five smaller choppers fighting the fire from the air. A massive DC-10 was dropping at both the Royal Gorge Fire and the Black Forest Fire.

Unpredictable wind still has firefighters worried.

"Certainly in places it is going to burn back on itself, which is obviously favorable to firefighters," Gregg Goodland with the U.S. Forest Service said. "But then again, with those unsecured flanks where it's unfavorable to firefighters we are going to see increased fire behavior ... the wind is not going to help."

Fire officials said they're hopeful they have kept the fire south of U.S. 50. Police officers have been out there since Tuesday afternoon making sure nobody is headed out on that highway so fire crews can have the access they need.

(credit: CBS)

The Ride the Rockies bicycle tour was scheduled to go over the bridge and ride U.S. 50 back into town. On Thursday the route was redirected so that it no longer takes cyclists over the bridge.

Instead the sixth stage of the 2013 tour will begin in Salida and end in Canon City as planned. The route between the two points has been adjusted so the cyclists will travel through the town of Westcliffe, Wetmore and Florence before heading north into Canon City.

The hope is the highway will be reopened and the race can still go on the highway on Friday. Obviously it will not go on the bridge and through the burn area, but there's a big party in Canyon City Friday night for the Ride for the Rockies and it's going to be a big donation chain. The town is hoping to raise a lot of money for the volunteer groups that helped fight this fire. There's a fund set up at a local bank.

There's another festival in Salida this weekend and the best way to get there for tens of thousands of people is U.S. 50.

The fire moved quickly Tuesday, driven by record temperatures and strong winds. The conditions were making it difficult to build containment lines around the flames, and sparks jumped across them.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized federal funds to defray costs of fighting the Royal Gorge Fire.

Wildfire Resources

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Wildfire Photo Galleries

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(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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