Firefighters struggled on Wednesday against a wildfire at the edge of Colorado Springs that doubled in size overnight and has forced 32,000 people from their homes, prompted evacuations from the U.S. Air Force Academy and consumed an unknown number of homes.
The Waldo Canyon Fire, which has grabbed attention for days because of its proximity to landmarks like the famed mountaintop of Pikes Peak and the Air Force Academy, has now burned through 15,375 acres (6,222 hectares) near Colorado's second-most populous city, fire information officer Rob Deyerberg told Reuters.
"That means it made a run of roughly 9,000 acres (3,600 hectares) in a matter of hours yesterday afternoon," he said.
Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown called the firestorm that hit his city - in a metropolitan area of more than 650,000 people - on Tuesday "a monster" and said at this point flames were "not even remotely close to being contained."
The fire, which is only 5 percent contained, was not as intense early on Wednesday but would likely build up again as the temperature rises during the day, Deyerberg said.
Officials were assessing damage a day after wind-driven flames swept over containment lines into Colorado Springs, burning down an unknown number of homes on its outskirts as authorities hurried to evacuate residents.
"This area that we're in is extremely dense," Colorado Springs Fire Department spokeswoman Sunny Smaldino told CNN on Wednesday. "It's one of our worst scenarios in our city to have that many homes affected."
A spot fire touched a vacant, southwest corner of the grounds of the Air Force Academy, which continues to operate but is closed to visitors, fire officials said.
No serious injuries from the Waldo Fire were reported as of Wednesday morning, Deyerberg said.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper flew into the city on Tuesday night by helicopter to meet with fire commanders and tour the fire zone. He noted that the blaze was one of at least a dozen burning throughout the state. Colorado wildfires have killed four people this year.
"This is the worst fire season in the history of Colorado," Hickenlooper said during an impromptu news conference, adding that from the air he saw many homes destroyed in a glowing landscape that looked surreal.
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.
COLUMN OF EVACUEE VEHICLES LEAVE CITY
Columns of vehicles carrying evacuees and hastily packed belongings stretched bumper-to-bumper for miles on Tuesday, crawling slowly southward out of town along Interstate 25.
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.
Hickenlooper said he was consulting with Pentagon officials. The Air Force Academy issued a statement saying the military was preparing to dispatch up to 25 more helicopters to join the firefighting effort.
Authorities earlier said that half of the fleet of eight Air Force C-130 cargo planes equipped as air tankers in Colorado were already at work, dropping flame-retardant chemicals over the blaze.
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 of the fast-moving Wood Hollow Fire about 100 miles (160 km) south of Salt Lake City, marking the first fatality in a blaze that has scorched more than 46,190 acres (18,692 hectares) of rolling hills covered by parched cheatgrass 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 of Fairview, a community of more than 1,200 residents, state emergency managers said.
The blaze has leveled 56 structures, 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, north of Denver, which now ranks as that state's second-largest blaze on record and its most destructive ever, having consumed 87,250 acres (35,309 hectares) in steep mountain canyons since it was sparked by lightning two weeks ago.
The High Park Fire has destroyed 257 homes and killed a 62-year-old grandmother, whose body was found in the ashes of her cabin; an estimated 4,300 residents have been evacuated.
Colorado accounts for several of the 29 large active wildfires being fought across the country. The bulk of them were in seven western states - Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and California - according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Although federal authorities say the fire season got off to an early start 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.