Colorado blaze too dangerous to assess damage

By The Associated Press

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Heat and flames from a destructive wildfire threatening Colorado’s second-largest city were far too intense Wednesday morning for authorities to fully assess the damage it caused overnight.

Officials don’t know how many houses have been destroyed in the towering blaze that has 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 blaze doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles, fire information officer Rob Dyerberg said.

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, the No. 1 priority for the nation’s firefighters.

“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.”

With flames cresting a ridge high above its scenic, 28-square-mile campus, the Air Force Academy told more than 2,100 residents to evacuate 600 households.

A curtain of flame and smoke hung above the academy’s Falcon Stadium; billowing gray clouds formed a backdrop to its aluminum, glass and steel Cadet Chapel, an icon of the academy. Elsewhere, police officers directing traffic and fleeing residents covered their faces with T-shirts and bandanas to breathe through the smoke.

“People are freaking out,” Kathleen Tillman told The Denver Post. “You are driving through smoke. It is completely pitch black, and there is tons of ash dropping on the road.”

Colorado Springs Fire Chief Richard Brown echoed her sentiment, saying, “This is a firestorm of epic proportions.”

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.

In central Utah, authorities found one woman dead Tuesday when they returned to an evacuated area. It marked the first casualty in the blaze that authorities said Wednesday burned down 56 structures, the majority of which are homes.

Sanpete County sheriff’s officials said they hadn’t identified the victim, whose remains were found during a damage assessment of the 60-square-mile Wood Hollow Fire near Indianola.

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 fire that charred nearly 70 square miles west of Ruidoso, N.M., was 90 percent contained, with many residents allowed to return home.

– A wildfire north of Helena, Mont., destroyed four homes and forced additional evacuations. Gov. Brian Schweitzer issued a state of emergency for four counties.

– A wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest grew from about 300 acres to 2,000 acres Tuesday, marking the first major wildfire of the season in western Wyoming.

DeBruin reported from Indianola, Utah. Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., Rema Rahman and Steven K. Paulson in Denver, and AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.