News24

US wildfires worsen, 32 000 flee homes

2012-06-27 09:00

Colorado Springs - A wildfire raging near some of Colorado's most popular tourist sites worsened on Tuesday, forcing 32 000 people from their homes, prompting evacuations from the US Air Force Academy and swallowing numerous houses at the edge of Colorado Springs.

From the vantage point of a command post about 16km from the path of advancing flames, the entire community of Mountain Shadows, a northwest subdivision, appeared to be enveloped in an orange glow after dark.

"This is a fire of epic proportions," Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown said as ash drifted down on the city and the thick smell of smoke permeated the air.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper flew into the city on Tuesday night by helicopter to meet with fire commanders and tour the fire zone first-hand. He noted that the blaze was one of at least a dozen wildfires burning throughout the state.

"This is the worst fire season in the history of Colorado," he said during an impromptu news conference, adding that from the air he saw many homes destroyed in a glowing landscape that looked "surreal".

The Waldo Canyon Fire, which has roared through at least 2509ha of dry timber since Saturday, has grabbed attention for days because of its proximity to landmarks like the famed mountaintop of Pikes Peak and the Air Force Academy.

32 00 evacuated

The blaze claimed its first property losses on Tuesday as wind-driven flames swept over containment lines into Colorado's second-most populous city, consuming an unknown number of homes on the town's outskirts as authorities hurried to evacuate residents.

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said 32 000 people had been evacuated, and an Air Force Academy spokesperson said the evacuation zone included two communities of single-family homes on academy grounds housing civilian and military personnel and their families.

"We are in a very critical situation now. Unfortunately we do have structures and homes that are burning in the northwest corner of Colorado Springs. We have mandatory evacuation over a considerable area," fire information officer Rob Deyerberg said.

A mushroom cloud of gray, black and brown smoke, topped by billowing, white cumulus clouds, rose nearly 6 100m into the sky and hung over the area as residents scrambled to heed evacuation orders.

The sudden closure of service stations along with other businesses, leaving fleeing motorists unable to fill up their cars, added to a sense of urgency as roads filled with traffic.

Closer to the blaze, which has been fanned by winds blowing into the southern Rockies from the prairies to the east, trees were visibly twisting from the heat of the flames.

Fatal blaze

"It's a very hostile environment out there," fire information officer Anne Rys-Sikora said.

Asked how quickly the fire was spreading after the latest flare-up on Tuesday afternoon, incident commander Rich Harvey said, "If I gave acreage right now, it would be wrong in five minutes. It's growing."

Still, the Waldo Canyon Fire, burning primarily within the Pike National Forest on the western fringe of Colorado City, was dwarfed in size by wildfires elsewhere across the state, and by a fatal blaze that flared with renewed intensity in Utah.

Authorities said on Tuesday a body was found in the ashes the fast-moving Wood Hollow Fire about 161km south of Salt Lake City, marking the first fatality in a blaze that has scorched over 15 780ha of rolling hills covered by parched cheat grass and sagebrush.

Flames fanned by high winds into a second county forced the closure of Utah's state Route 89 for a second time and prompted the evacuation of the entire town Fairview, a community of more than 1 200 residents according to the latest census, state emergency managers said.

The blaze already has levelled an estimated 30 homes and killed 75 sheep, authorities said.

Destruction

The Wood Hollow Fire is believed to be one of just two western wildfires that have claimed lives in recent weeks.

The other is the High Park Fire near Fort Collins, Colorado, south of Denver, which now ranks as that state's second-largest blaze on record and its most destructive ever, having consumed 35 308ha in steep mountain canyons since it was sparked by lightning two weeks ago.

The High Park has destroyed 248 homes and killed a 62-year-old grandmother, whose body was found in the ashes of her cabin, while leaving an estimated 4 300 residents displaced by evacuations.

Colorado accounts for several of the 29 large active wildfires being fought across the country on Tuesday.

The bulk of them were in seven western states - Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and California, the National Interagency Fire Centre in Boise, Idaho, reported.

Although federal authorities say the fire season got off to an early start this summer in parts of the northern Rockies, the number of fires and acreage burned nationwide is still below the 10-year average for this time of year, according to fire agency records.