By Keith Coffman
COLORADO SPRINGS (Reuters) - A wildfire raging near some of Colorado's most popular tourist sites took a turn for the worse on Tuesday as it forced 32,000 people from their homes, prompted evacuations on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy and swallowed homes at the edge of Colorado Springs.
The Waldo Canyon Fire, which has roared through at least 6,200 acres of dry timber since Saturday, has grabbed attention 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 flames swept over containment lines into the northwestern edge of Colorado's second-most populous city, consuming an unknown number of homes as authorities hurried to evacuate residents.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said 32,000 people had been evacuated, and fire information officer Rob Deyerberg said the evacuation zone included the southern part of the Air Force Academy grounds, including a residential area.
"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," Deyerberg told Reuters.
A mushroom cloud of gray, black and brown smoke, topped by billowing, white cumulus clouds, rose nearly 20,000 feet into the sky and hung over residents as they 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.
"It's a very hostile environment out there," fire information officer Anne Rys-Sikora told Reuters.
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."
DEATH IN UTAH
Still, the Waldo Canyon Fire, burning primarily within the Pike National Forest on the western fringe of Colorado's second most populous 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 100 miles south of Salt Lake City, marking the first fatality in a blaze that has scorched over 39,000 acres 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 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 87,250 acres 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 Center 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.
(Additional reporting by Ellen Miller in Grand Junction, and Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Eric Walsh and Lisa Shumaker)