Colorado blaze too dangerous to assess damage

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Associated Press

Posted on June 27, 2012 at 10:00 AM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 27 at 6:01 PM

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — A raging wildfire destroyed dozens of houses overnight and charred land on the edges of the Air Force Academy on Wednesday, while thick smoke and intense, towering flames kept officials from learning the full scope of damage to Colorado's second-largest city.

The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles, and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents, Colorado Springs emergency management director Brett Waters said. Among those urgently evacuated Tuesday evening were residents at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The fire burned about 10 acres of land along the southwest boundary of the academy's 28-square-mile boundary, but no injuries or damage to academy structures have been reported.

Steve Cox, an aide to Mayor Steve Bach, said Wednesday morning that the blaze has consumed dozens of houses elsewhere. A more precise figure wasn't available because of the intensity of the fire.

Heavy smoke and ash billowed from the mountain foothills west of the city. Bright yellow and orange flames flared in the night, often signaling another home lost to the Waldo Canyon Fire, which is the No. 1 priority for the nation's firefighters.

The White House said President Barack Obama would tour the fire area on Friday.

"It was like looking at the worst movie set you could imagine," Gov. John Hickenlooper said after flying over the 9-square-mile fire late Tuesday. "It's almost surreal. You look at that, and it's like nothing I've seen before."

Flames crested a ridge above the scenic Air Force Academy campus on Tuesday, and the school told more than 2,200 residents to evacuate 600 households in one housing area.

By Wednesday, the smoke appeared farther away, said Lt. Col. John Bryan, an academy spokesman.

About 90 firefighters from the academy and nearby fire departments were battling the encroaching flames.

It wasn't immediately clear how close the fire was to the academy's signature building, the aluminum, glass and steel Cadet Chapel. The chapel dorms, classrooms and other central buildings are clustered in the northwest quadrant of the 28-square-mile campus.

"The cadets are safe," Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, the academy superintendent, said.

More than 1,000 incoming freshman are scheduled to report to the academy as scheduled on Thursday, but the day's events have been moved to a campus building farther from the fire, Bryan said.

About 1,500 other cadets who are attending summer classes would take shelter off campus with civilian or military families if the threat worsens, Bryan said.

Academy officials said 90 firefighters were trying to stop the flames on the campus, including some from nearby departments.

Colorado Springs Fire Chief Richard Brown called the blaze " a firestorm of epic proportions."

Christine Williams and her daughter Serina saw flames consuming grass just 30 yards from their northwest Colorado Springs apartment complex when they fled.

"It was pretty close," Serina Williams said Wednesday. "It was too close for comfort, that's for sure. It's like we've had our life swiped out from underneath us."

Sarah Safranek was in tears as she sought information about her house.

"Right now I'd rather not know," she said.

Thunderstorms are expected near the blaze in the afternoon, but incident commander Rich Harvey says they could bring unpredictable winds that would hinder firefighters' efforts near the city of 419,000 people.

The fire is about 5 percent contained, Harvey said.

Throughout the interior West, firefighters have toiled for days in searing, record-setting heat against fires fueled by prolonged drought. Most, if not all, of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana were under red flag warnings, meaning extreme fire danger.

The nation is experiencing "a super-heated spike on top of a decades-long warming trend," said Derek Arndt, head of climate monitoring at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.

Elsewhere in Colorado, the 136-square-mile High Park Fire has destroyed 257 homes, authorities said. That fire was triggered by lightning June 9.

And elsewhere in the West:

— A blaze in central Utah has burned down 56 structures, the majority of which are homes, officials said Wednesday. Authorities are about halfway through their damage assessment of a fire that has burned about 46,000 acres, or 72 square miles. Officials returned to an evacuated area and found a woman dead Tuesday.

— A wildfire north of Billings, Mont., caused hundreds of families to be evacuated from their homes as the blaze burned more than 18,000 acres, or about 28 square miles. Musselshell County Attorney Kent Sipe told The Billings Gazette that at least 60 homes had burned.

— A wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest has grown from about 2,000 acres to 12,000 acres, or nearly 19 square miles, officials said Wednesday.

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Associated Press writers Thomas Peipert in Colorado Springs, Rema Rahman and Steven K. Paulson in Denver, Lynn DeBruin in Indianola, Utah, and AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.

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