Colorado Wildfire Forces 32,000 to Evacuate as Homes Burn
By Jennifer Oldham and Amanda J. Crawford – Jun 27, 2012 5:00 PM GMT+0100
A wildfire in the mountainous suburbs of Colorado Springs is burning out of control, forcing the evacuation of 32,500 residents and destroying homes.
Hot, dry conditions and 65-mile-per-hour (104 kph) winds pushed the 6,200-acre Waldo Canyon Fire over containment lines last night and into the state’s second-largest city, closing the U.S. Air Force Academy and tourist sites.
“It was looking like the worst movie set you could imagine,” Governor John Hickenlooper told reporters after flying over the fire last night. “It’s like nothing I’ve seen before.”
Record heat and drought are fostering wildfires across the American west, including in Idaho, Montana and New Mexico. Wildfires are burning across about 140,000 acres (566 square kilometers) of Colorado, according to the Incident Command System.
The four-day-old Colorado Springs wildfire, whose cause is under investigation, is one of eight burning in the state. Plumes of white-orange smoke could be seen from Interstate 25, the main north-south highway, which was closed temporarily last night, as the fire blazed within miles of the city center.
The city of 416,000 is under a blanket of smoke that blocks the sun, gives the sky an eerie glow and makes breathing difficult. Officials are warning residents to stay indoors and to evacuate immediately if they are notified.
Officials are assessing how many homes have burned, said Bret Waters, the city’s emergency management director, at a press conference. Embers from burning trees landing on roofs in the suburbs have posed a challenge, said Rich Harvey, incident commander for the multi-agency force fighting the blaze. About 60 percent of embers remain active in the hot, dry air and can spark fires a half-mile away.
Today, fire crews are working to protect structures and build containment lines. Two hundred federal firefighters from outside the state arrived last night, bringing to 1,000 the number battling the blaze, which is 5 percent contained, Harvey said.
Crews are using bulldozers, helicopters and C-130 cargo planes, Harvey said. Predictions for scattered thunderstorms today have brought a mixture of hope and concern: lightning and wind may make conditions worse.
“This is a wind-driven fire,” Harvey said, calling yesterday a “historically challenging day” for fire crews in Colorado. “We expect further trouble from the weather today. Thunderstorms are a unique problem for us; wind can come from any direction.”
The fires throughout Colorado have been fueled by drought and record high temperatures, including highs above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) for the past five days, according to Jim Kalina, a meteorologist in Boulder for the National Weather Service.
Temperatures are expected to be cooler, in the 90s, for the rest of the week. Rain would help, Kalina said, however the chance is low for the rest of the week.
“If you get a storm that gets rain, then that could help the fire out,” Kalina said. “If you don’t get the rain, but you get the winds, it could make it worse.”
Another blaze, the Flagstaff fire, was sparked by lightning in mountains above Boulder, forcing officials to evacuate 26 homes, according to the city’s website. The fire is about 230 acres; 250 firefighters from 50 agencies are battling it. The state’s firefighting resources are stretched so thin that firefighters from Denver’s suburbs were sent to fight the Boulder blaze.