By Keith Coffman
WESTMINSTER, Colo. (Reuters) - Residents remaining in Estes Park, in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, were told to evacuate their homes on Saturday as wind gusts fanned the second largest wildfire in state history and the blaze claimed the lives of an elderly couple.
Officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for eastern Estes Park as wind gusts pushed the 191,000-acre (77,300-hectare) East Troublesome Fire east, threatening the town of 6,300 people that serves as a base camp for the popular national park.
Noel Livingston, incident commander for the fire, said firefighters waged a "very aggressive" battle on Saturday to hold the line at Estes Park and expressed hopes that a winter storm overnight would aid in containment.
"They've had a very long day, a very tough day," Livingston told a briefing on Saturday evening. "A lot of active fire spread there with the community certainly still at risk."
Livingston said the fire probably was caused by a human, but noted that the investigation was not complete.
At a Red Cross evacuation center in the Denver suburb of Westminster, a steady stream of evacuees from Estes Park waited in line to be processed and receive hotel and restaurant vouchers. Many exchanged information and stories about their experience with others forced out of their homes.
Estes Park resident Suzanne Adams, 44, and her husband Phillip, 49, fled their home on Thursday when just voluntary evacuations were in place. The couple decided to leave when smoke blanketed the town on Thursday afternoon.
"The sky turned pink and red and ash started to fall – we thought it was snowing," she said.
Phillip Adams said as the blaze "roared like a freight train" as it moved toward the town. "I looked out to the west and could see flames 300 feet high over the mountain," he said.
Near the town of Grand Lake, some 17 miles (30 km) southwest of Estes Park, the fire killed Lyle and Marilyn Hileman, who were 86- and 84-years-old. The couple, who were married for almost 70 years, chose not to leave their home, local officials said after finding their bodies on Friday.
"Our parents left this world together and on their own terms. They leave a legacy of hard work and determination to overcome - something all of Grand County will need," the family said in a statement released to local media.
The fire, which started on Oct. 14, was 4% contained as of Saturday. As the flames spread and jumped the Continental Divide on Thursday, authorities closed all 415 square miles (668 square km) of Rocky Mountain National Park to visitors, and ordered the evacuation of several mountain communities.
Livingston said he was hoping that a winter storm warning would translate into lots of snow.
"We are hoping, fingers crossed, that we get significant snow tonight," he said. "We'll take advantage of that tomorrow."
The closure of the park is in addition to more than one million acres of wilderness in Colorado that the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and state authorities have been forced to declare off limits to the public.
Further north, Colorado's largest wildfire on record, the Cameron Peak Fire, has been burning since mid-August. It has burned more than 207,400 acres and scorched swaths of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. As of Saturday morning, it was 60% contained.
Making conditions worse, most of Colorado is in the grip of some level of drought, according to information released this week by the U.S. Drought Monitor.
(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Daniel Wallis)