36,000 Flee "Epic" Colorado Fire

By: From CNN, Posted by Ralph Hipp
By: From CNN, Posted by Ralph Hipp

COLORADO SPRINGS (CNN) -- Authorities evacuated more neighborhoods Wednesday as firefighters tried to slow a wildfire that roared down foothills and razed residential areas in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Waldo Canyon Fire had engulfed 15,517 acres and was only 5% contained.

Late Tuesday, authorities said evacuations stood at 32,000. That number rose Wednesday to more than 35,000, with additional neighborhoods cleared, said Dave Rose, public information officer for El Paso County.

"We have rehearsed and practiced disasters," said Rose. "We have never seen one like this before."

"You saw yesterday as bad a fire behavior as you are going to see anywhere, anytime," said Rich Harvey, the fire incident commander, referring to extremely dry, hot and windy conditions. "We expect further trouble from the weather today."

The 1,000 firefighters braced for predicted thunderstorms Wednesday afternoon, which could worsen the situation. The storms bring with them strong winds that can gust unpredictably in any direction.

"That will make work for firefighters more difficult," Harvey said.

Twelve wildfires were raging in Colorado. The Waldo Canyon Fire captured attention because of its proximity to landmarks such as Pikes Peak and the Air Force Academy, and also to Colorado Springs, a city of about 400,000 which is the state's second largest.

Winds gusting to 65 mph through mountain canyons blew the wildfire through containment lines into northwest Colorado Springs on Tuesday afternoon. It roared downhill, burning to the ground the Flying W Ranch, a popular Western-style tourist destination.

CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen likened conditions to a double-edged sword. While temperatures were down a bit Wednesday, high-based thunderstorms will be fed by rising air, wind and low humidity, he said.

Such storms produce lightning and rain, but dry air will suck up most of the precipitation before it hits the ground. Lightning can reach the parched soil and possibly ignite additional fires, according to Hennen.

Richard Brown, the Colorado Springs fire chief, described it as a "firestorm of epic proportions."

Gov. John Hickenlooper surveyed the Waldo Canyon Fire, telling reporters it was a difficult sight to see.

"There were people's homes burned to the ground. It was surreal," he said late Tuesday night. "There's no question, it's serious. It's as serious as it gets."

Hickenlooper said officials still have not determined how the fire started.
Authorities had not tallied the number of lost or damaged structures.

President Barack Obama called the governor and Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach. Obama will travel to the area Friday, survey the damage and thank responders battling the blaze, the White House said.

The flames came dangerously close to the U.S. Air Force Academy main campus and an evacuation order was issued for about 700 residents in its Pine Valley Housing and 1,400 in Douglass Valley Housing, said public affairs officer John Van Winkle. The facility was closed to visitors Wednesday, with only essential personnel asked to report.

The academy's powered flight, glider and parachuting operations have been called off since Saturday so that the U.S. Forest Service could use runways for helicopters used to fight fires along Colorado's Front Range, Van Winkle said.

The academy's Class of 2016 -- all 1,045 cadets -- is still scheduled to arrive Thursday, but officials are making contingency plans in case they have to report to a different location on the base.

Many Colorado Springs residents waited anxiously to get word of whether their homes had been spared. Becky Schormann was one.

Her family managed to take some sentimental items with them when they left, but still had to leave behind a boat, a pair of ATVs, a China cabinet and an antique doll collection.

"I keep telling myself: It's going to be OK," she said.

Schormann told CNN that flames came to within 20 feet of their home but were beaten back.

"Our volunteer fire department is just awesome," she said.

The Schormanns are staying in an RV at their daughter's home. The family's two dogs, a pony and a donkey also came along for the ride.

Rose, the county information officer, said one in four callers to the joint information center are offering food for firefighters, shelter for displaced neighbors or to volunteer in some capacity.

"It is a somber resolve," Rose told CNN. "There's no doubt that we have a grim reality that we have lost a number of structures. Our western border mountain vista has dramatically altered."

The 12 fires in the state had consumed 181,426 acres by Wednesday afternoon, according to the Colorado Division of Emergency Management.

The largest of the fires was the High Park Fire, which began June 9 and has now consumed 87,284 acres, the U.S. Forest Service said. It was 65% contained Wednesday. The total number of homes burned stood at 257. An estimated $33.1 million has been spent trying to contain the blaze.

A portion of neighboring Utah was under a red-flag warning, with at least three wildfires burning Wednesday.

Authorities said they found the body of one person after they entered the evacuated areas of the Wood Hollow Fire, about 30 miles south of Provo. The victim had not been identified, according to the Sanpete County Sheriff's Office.

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