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Surging Colorado wildfires forcing tens of thousands to flee (+video)

Firefighters battled to save the US Air Force Academy and heavily populated areas around Colorado Springs and Boulder, as high winds drove the wildfires. President Obama plans to visit the devastated areas.

By Staff writer / June 27, 2012

The Waldo Canyon fire burns near a densely populated neighborhood behind the US Air Force Academy, west of Colorado Springs, Colo. on Wednesday. Firefighters struggled against a wildfire at the edge of Colorado Springs that doubled in size overnight and has forced 32,000 people from their homes, prompted evacuations from the US Air Force Academy and consumed an unknown number of homes.

Rick Wilking/Reuters

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Boulder, Colo.

Wildfire worries in Colorado surged Wednesday, as fires threatened heavily populated areas of the state in and around Colorado Springs and Boulder – and a dangerous combination of high winds, heat, and drought conditions compounded firefighters' difficulties. With three major fires burning within its borders, the state scrambled to allocate resources, and President Obama on Wednesday announced he would visit Colorado Springs at the end of this week to view the damage.

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Near Colorado Springs, the Waldo Canyon fire ballooned Tuesday night, as high winds caused the fire to double in size to more than 15,000 acres. The city evacuated about 26,000 more people overnight, and on Wednesday, additional families in parts of Woodland Park – to the Northwest side of the fire – and Crystola were given the evacuation order.

More than 32,000 people have been evacuated so far, including residents of the US Air Force Academy. By Wednesday, the fire had encroached 10 miles onto Academy grounds, and firefighters were doing their best to hold the flames back. "We're facing a potentially devastating disaster right here," Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould told reporters in a press conference. Conditions improved enough Wednesday afternoon that the Academy briefly allowed some evacuees back into their base housing to collect more belongings.

Already, the fire has destroyed dozens of homes around Colorado Springs, particularly in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, and is threatening thousands more.

It was like looking at the worst movie set you could imagine," Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) told the Associated Press after flying over the fire late Tuesday. "It's almost surreal. You look at that, and it's like nothing I've seen before."

About half of the active federal wildfire-fighting resources are now staged in Colorado, including firefighters, helicopters, and air tankers. And by midafternoon Wednesday, several massive C-130 air tankers had dropped about 27,000 gallons of fire retardant on the Waldo Canyon fire.

Meanwhile, Boulder, Colo., to the northwest of Denver, faced its own fire worries after a lightning strike sparked several fires Tuesday. While most of the fires were quickly contained, one just outside city limits quickly grew to 300 acres and resisted firefighters' efforts to contain it.

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