Dusty winds turned an erratic, out-of-control fire back toward Colorado Springs Wednesday, destroying homes and forcing at least 34,500 people to evacuate.
Scattered thunderstorms over Colorado’s second-largest city didn’t temper the ferocity of the Waldo Canyon fire, whose flames have moved unpredictably, propelled by dry conditions and winds gusting to near hurricane strength. The blaze continued to burn out of control Thursday.
“It’s been house to house, door to door, street to street activity all night long and continued into today,” Rich Harvey, the incident commander for the multi-agency group fighting the blaze, told reporters late yesterday.
Record heat and drought are fueling wildfires across the western U.S., including in Idaho, Montana and New Mexico. In Colorado, at least nine have burned over about 233 square miles, according to the Incident Command System. President Barack Obama will travel to Colorado Springs Friday to “view the damage and thank the responders bravely battling the fire,” according to a White House statement.
Officials haven’t given an assessment of the number of burned homes and damaged neighborhoods. The U.S. Air Force Academy and tourist sites have been closed.
“It was looking like the worst movie set you could imagine,” Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, told reporters after flying over the fire June 26. “It’s like nothing I’ve seen.”
The four-day-old Colorado Springs fire’s cause is under investigation. White-orange smoke could be seen from Interstate 25, the main north-south highway, which was closed temporarily as the fire blazed within miles of downtown.
Smoke blanketed the city of 416,000 at the foot of the Rampart Range of the Rocky Mountains, blocking the sun, giving the sky an eerie glow and making breathing difficult. Officials warned residents to stay indoors and to evacuate immediately if notified to get out.
Charla Bertrand and her husband, Dick, fled their home in the wooded Rockrimmon area, leaving with four cardboard boxes of photo albums.
“The flames were coming all the way across the foothills,” said Charla Bertrand, 67. “An hour later, I looked outside and it was pea-soup smoke. You couldn’t see across the street. It was very strange. The sun was shining and it had an orange glow.”
The Bertrands sheltered in Cheyenne Mountain High School’s gym, which housed 159 people by early yesterday. Catherine Barde, an American Red Cross spokeswoman, said it can hold 750.
About 70 took refuge in the Southeast Family YMCA on the city’s outskirts, said Keith Ives, a Red Cross shelter manager.
Melanie Turner, 35, at the shelter with her 9-year-old son, said they had less than 10 minutes to leave their home. They spent two hours in traffic trying to flee as ash fell from the sky and fire crested the ridge.
“I’m just hoping that my house didn’t burn down,” she said. “We don’t know anything yet.”
Officials are assessing how many homes have been destroyed, Bret Waters, Colorado Springs’ emergency management director, said at a briefing for reporters. The fire has consumed at least 18,500 acres.
Crews are working to protect structures and build containment lines. The arrival of 200 federal firefighters from outside the state June 26 brought to 1,000 the number battling the blaze, which was 5 percent contained by late Wednesday, said Harvey, the multi-agency spokesman.
Workers used bulldozers, helicopters and C-130 cargo aircraft to fight the fire, Harvey said. Yesterday’s storms brought hope and concern: Lightning and wind may worsen conditions.
“This is a wind-driven fire,” Harvey said. “Thunderstorms are a unique problem for us; wind can come from any direction.” Gusts in the area reached speeds of as much as 65 miles an hour.
In western Colorado, three helicopters and 95 firefighters were battling the 700-acre Pine Ridge fire 10 miles northeast of Grand Junction, the state’s Division of Emergency Management said late yesterday on its website. The blaze, started by lightning strikes, is “growing rapidly” in difficult-to-access terrain and hasn’t been contained, the agency said.
Near Boulder, a smaller blaze was sparked by lightning in mountains above the city, home to the University of Colorado. Called the Flagstaff fire, it was 30 percent contained after consuming at least 280 acres by late yesterday, according to Rick Brough, a Boulder County Sheriff’s Department commander. Residents in 28 homes in the county were evacuated along with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, near the fire burning west of Bear Peak.
No structures or homes had been damaged, Brough told reporters late yesterday. A pre-evacuation order for homes in the southwest part of the city was lifted, according to Kim Kobel, a Boulder Police Department spokeswoman at the briefing.
While lightning sparked several small fires, those were all quickly put out yesterday, Brough said. Rain and increased humidity in the area helped to contain the Flagstaff fire.
“Today was a good day,” Brough told reporters. While crews will continue to fight the blaze, they don’t expect it to spread overnight, he said.
The state’s firefighting resources are stretched so thin that personnel from Denver’s suburbs were sent to help deal with the fires near Boulder.
Harvey called it a “historically challenging day.”
Fire conditions have been worsened by drought and heat, including highs above 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the past five days, according to Jim Kalina, a meteorologist in Boulder for the U.S. National Weather Service.
Colorado Springs residents said they were shocked that the fire had come so close to downtown. Virginia Franklyn, 40, has lived near the city center for 17 years and frequently hikes Waldo Canyon trail, where the conflagration broke out.
“People are stunned and surprised,” she said as she brought evacuees laptop computers from the Pikes Peak Library District, where she works. “When we saw the fire, you didn’t think it was going to go over the ridge.”
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