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Waldo Canyon fire reaches 'epic proportions' (+video)

Waldo Canyon fire: Evacuations continued near Colorado Springs Wednesday as the Waldo Canyon fire is only five percent contained, and weather conditions may fan the flames Wednesday, say Colorado officials.

By Keith CoffmanReuters / June 27, 2012

Fire from the Waldo Canyon wildfire burns as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012.

(AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

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Colorado Springs, Colo.

A wildfire raging near some of Colorado's most popular tourist sites grew suddenly more ferocious on Tuesday, forcing 32,000 people from their homes, prompting evacuations from the U.S. Air Force Academy and swallowing numerous houses at the edge of Colorado Springs.

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Fires have even led to the evacuation of the Air Force Academy.

From the vantage point of a command post about 10 miles (16 km) from the path of advancing flames, the entire community of Mountain Shadows, a northwest subdivision, appeared to be enveloped in an orange glow after dark.

"This is a fire of epic proportions," Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown said as ash drifted down on the city, sirens wailed and the thick smell of smoke permeated the air.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper flew into the city Tuesday night by helicopter to meet with fire commanders and tour the fire zone first-hand. He noted that the blaze was one of at least a dozen burning throughout the state. Four people have died in Colorado wildfires so far this year.

"This is the worst fire season in the history of Colorado," he said during an impromptu news conference, adding that from the air he saw many homes destroyed in a glowing landscape that looked "surreal."

The Waldo Canyon Fire, which has roared through at least 6,200 acres of dry timber since Saturday, has grabbed attention for days because of its proximity to landmarks like the famed mountaintop of Pikes Peak and the Air Force Academy.

The blaze claimed its first property losses on Tuesday as wind-driven flames swept over containment lines into Colorado's second-most populous city, consuming an unknown number of homes on the town's outskirts as authorities hurried to evacuate residents.

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said 32,000 people had been evacuated, and an Air Force Academy spokesman said the evacuation zone included two communities of single-family homes on academy grounds housing civilian and military personnel and their families.

"We are in a very critical situation now. Unfortunately we do have structures and homes that are burning in the northwest corner of Colorado Springs. We have mandatory evacuation over a considerable area," fire information officer Rob Deyerberg told Reuters.

Rich Harvey, the fire incident commander, told the Denver Post. said the fire exploded Tuesday afternoon, driven by fierce, unpredictable winds. On Wednesday, firefighters are bracing for afternoon thunderstorms and a flash flood watch has been issued by National Weather Service for the fire zone.

"We expect more trouble from the weather today," Harvey said. .

A mushroom cloud of gray, black and brown smoke, topped by billowing, white cumulus clouds, rose nearly 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) into the sky and hung over the area as residents scrambled to heed evacuation orders.

The sudden closure of service stations along with other businesses, leaving fleeing motorists unable to fill up their cars, added to a sense of urgency as roads filled with traffic Tuesday.

Columns of vehicles carrying evacuees and hastily packed belongings stretched bumper-to-bumper for miles, crawling slowly southward out of town along Interstate 25.

Closer to the blaze, which has been fanned by winds blowing into the southern Rockies from the prairies to the east, trees were visibly twisting from the heat of the flames.
"It's a very hostile environment out there," fire information officer Anne Rys-Sikora said.

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