A wildfire raging near some of Colorado’s most popular tourist sites grew suddenly more ferocious 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, sirens wailed 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 said that the blaze was one of at least a dozen burning throughout the state. Four people have died in Colorado wildfires so far this year.
“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 25km2 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.
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 spokesman said the evacuation zone included two communities of single-family homes on academy grounds housing civilian and military personnel and their families.
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.
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 that a body was found in the ashes of the fast-moving Wood Hollow fire about 161km south of Salt Lake City, marking the first fatality in a blaze that has scorched over 158km2 of rolling hills covered by parched cheat grass and sagebrush.
The blaze already has leveled an estimated 30 homes and killed 75 sheep, authorities said.
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 353km2 in steep mountain canyons since it was sparked by lightning two weeks ago.
The High Park fire 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.