Raging Colorado wildfire grows near US Air Force Academy

Reuters News
|
Posted: Jun 22, 2012 5:10 PM

By Keith Coffman

COLORADO SPRINGS (Reuters) - An out-of-control wildfire near some of Colorado's most visited tourist sites expanded overnight and kept some 6,000 people from their homes on Monday, as forecasts said winds could push the flames toward the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The fire sent a mushroom cloud of smoke over Colorado Springs in the shadow of Pikes Peak, whose vistas helped inspire the patriotic tune "America the Beautiful." Closer to the blaze, trees were visibly torquing and twisting from the heat.

The Waldo Canyon fire about 80 miles south of Denver had initially prompted the evacuation of 11,000 people on Sunday until residents of the town of Manitou Springs were allowed home, but were told to be ready to leave again on short notice.

One of those residents was retired nurse Carol Yeager, 76, who lives in Manitou Springs. Late on Saturday night, she evacuated from her stucco home on the orders of police, grabbing a handful of personal effects and her four cats.

"The flames were shooting skyward," she said. "It's cleared up a lot, but police told us if the wind shifts, it's touch and go, and they said to be ready to evacuate again."

On Sunday, El Paso County spokesman Dave Rose said the fire was burning two miles from the base of Pikes Peak, billed as the most visited mountain in North America.

The fire was also within six to 10 miles of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs as winds fanned the flames in its direction, and fire authorities listed the academy as being threatened by the blaze along with utilities and watershed.

A recreation area belonging to the Academy was ordered evacuated due to its proximity to the fire, and all trails leading west of the school were closed, the base said.

But the blaze would still have to traverse rough terrain, burning down through steep canyons and up mountain ridges, before it would reach the Air Force Academy itself, Academy spokesman Meade Warthen said.

"We don't have any reason at this particular point to think we're going to be inundated, but we're standing by," Warthen said. "There are contingency plans in place. If we need to implement them, we will."

The Department of Homeland Security said it was providing the Federal Emergency Management Agency financial assistance to help battle the Waldo Canyon and other fires, noting the blaze's threat to 250 homes in the area.

RESOURCES STRETCHED

The Waldo Canyon blaze came as firefighting resources were stretched by the monster High Park blaze northwest of Fort Collins, a university city north of Denver along the state's tinder-dry Front Range.

A dozen fires in total are burning across Colorado, with high temperatures projected to top 100 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) again on Monday expected to cause "extreme" fire behavior, officials said.

"We're going to be continuing to have to deal with these fires for weeks to come," U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said. "We anticipate it's going to be a long fire season."

The High Park Fire - the second-largest blaze on record in the state and its most destructive - has consumed 83,205 acres in steep canyons since it was sparked by lightning two weeks ago. It is blamed for the death of a 62-year-old grandmother in her mountain cabin and has destroyed 248 homes.

An estimated 4,300 people remain evacuated from their homes as that fire burns through grass, brush and Ponderosa pine.

In southwestern Colorado, the Weber Fire grew to 8,300 acres overnight but firefighters held it about one mile southeast of the small town of Mancos, east of Mesa Verde National Park.

Roughly 50 homes were evacuated, and more residents were on evacuation warning, fire information officer Mary Huels said.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Utah, a fast-growing 39,000-acre wildfire continued to rage on Monday and was only about 12 percent contained, the state's governor said.

An estimated 30 homes and about 75 sheep had been lost in the Wood Hollow fire, burning between the rural communities of Fountain Green and Indianola. Governor Gary Herbert, who toured the fire by helicopter on Monday morning, estimated the property losses so far at $7 million.

No injuries have been reported, but Herbert said fire officials did use a helicopter to remove some shepherds from the area mountains to get them out of the fire's path.

More than 500 structures have been threatened by the Wood Hollow fire, forcing up to 1,500 people from their homes or summer cabins.

"The big worry now is the weather. Everything that can be done is being done," Herbert told a televised news conference.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Miller in Grand Junction, Deborah Zabarenko in Washington, and Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City; Writing and additional reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Eric Walsh and Lisa Shumaker)