High winds fuel fire near Rocky Mountain National Park

DENVER (AP) — A fire that closed Rocky Mountain National Park and forced nearby residents to flee their homes has grown to 265 square miles (686 square kilometers), authorities said Thursday night.

Noel Livingston, incident commander for the East Troublesome Fire, said during a community meeting that the blaze grew by 78 square miles on Thursday alone. It had burned only 30 square miles (78 square kilometers) before exploding late Wednesday.

Livingston called the fire's rapid growth “really unheard of for a fire in this part of the world in timber.”

The damage to the Grand Lake area was not immediately clear, but Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said at a morning fire briefing that there had been “lots of structural loss."

He said Thursday night it would be a “long, methodical process” to assess the damage caused by the fire.

“I know there’s a lot of you out there that want to know. I want to know, but we want to allow these firefighters to get in there,” he said. “If I put cops in some of these dangerous spots, basically I’m just creating extra work for the fire department while they could be working on protecting other lives and other structures.”

The fire spread into Rocky Mountain National Park, which was closed to park visitors. Trail Ridge Road, the scenic road through the park, was not passable on the west side because of downed trees on the road, park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said, adding that the air quality in the area also was hazardous.

In a video recorded at the entrance to Grand Lake at around 1 a.m., Schroetlin said authorities never expected the fire, which started last week, to grow by 9 square miles (23 square kilometers) an hour. He praised first responders for making some “incredible rescues” and the community for coming together.

“Our community is grand. We are without a doubt. We're going to get through this together,” he said, some flames visible in the background.

The fire, the cause of which has not been determined, spread north of Grand Lake and nearby Granby in dry trees that had been killed by beetles.