Authorities say 32,000 people have been evacuated in Colorado Springs as the wind-driven Waldo Canyon Fire exploded Tuesday into several neighborhoods, destroying countless homes.
"This is a firestorm of epic proportions," Colorado Springs Fire Chief Richard Brown said at a Tuesday night briefing.
Evacuations have been issued for northwest Colorado Springs and parts of the Air Force Academy campus.
Multiple homes have burned in the Mountain Shadows community in the western foothills, fire officials said.
Officials would not provide an early estimate, but viewers who had relatives fighting on the front lines say that at least 100 homes have been destroyed.
Winds gusting to 65 mph blew the wildfire over containment lines into Colorado Springs on Tuesday afternoon.
The firestorm sent up a towering cloud of smoke that partially obscured the setting sun. By night, a huge orange ball of flames glowed in the foothills.
'Block After Block' Of Burned Homes
Gov. John Hickenlooper described flying over the burning devastation at night.
"We just flew over the fires, and we could see the path that they came down out of the hills. It was like looking at a military invasion," he said.
"All the bright spots, as you got closer you saw they were people's homes. They weren't trees on fire, they were people's homes, burned to the ground, block after block," Hickenlooper said.
Officials said they have streets, but no specifics on addresses of homes burned.
One stunned fire official said he hadn't seen such an inferno in his 30-year career.
"That fire exploded ...far beyond what could have been predicted -- 65 mph winds," said Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach. "It's an act of nature."
The fire chief said the blaze forced its way into three different directions, as the winds changed directions three times.
"This fire had three different heads on it, it leapt across three sides," Brown said.
Brown described firefighters stunned as they witnessed the fire devouring through first, then second lines of containment.
Battle On To Save An Entire Community
The Waldo Canyon Fire erupted Saturday morning and for the first several days, officials were confident with the progress they had made. The fire was 5 percent contained.
"It was three days in a row where we all were feeling really good at the end of each day with the success we had experienced. We also kept telling ourselves it's amazing and this fire has some scary attributes," said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa. "We were getting a lot of pressure from many citizens to get them to their homes. I think today was an eye opening experience and a very costly one for many people."
Maketa, who said he is also an evacuee, said the battle is on to save hundreds of homes.
"If you lose a home, that is catastrophic to you. But now were looking at
we dont want to lose a community," Maketa said.
The massive fire sends a dark plume of smoke over the city.
Officials say the Waldo Canyon Fire has scorched 6,200 acres, but that was an early estimate.
No injuries or deaths have been reported.
More than 800 firefighters are battling the blaze and their numbers are growing as fire departments from across the state send fire crews and engines streaming to Colorado Springs. They are supported by firefighting helicopters and air tankers.
The Waldo Canyon Fire is among nine uncontained wildfires burning across Colorado, stoked by record 100-degree heat, high winds and tinder-dry fuel.
"The community of Colorado Springs has never seen a fire like this before. This is truly historic, unprecedented weather," said U.S. Forest spokeswoman Jerri Marr, explaining the back-to-back years of droughts.
"We didn't want the fire to be crossing Queen's Canyon and that's one of the things we've been focusing on for multiple days. It took a run up Queen's Canyon. When it got to the top of the area, it picked up winds. These winds picked up at 65 mph. That was not in the plan," Marr said. "The fire was then pushed down into the Mountain Shadows community."
Brown, the fire chief, assured residents that fire crews were doing their best to save homes.
"We're making stands. We're saving many, many homes," he said.
"We are triaging homes. When you see one thats heavily involved the next step is to catch the ones next to it and try to save the ones that appear to be salvageable," Brown added.
Mandatory Evacuations Grow And Grow
Smoke from the wildfire forced a three-hour closure of southbound Interstate 25 at Interquest Parkway on Tuesday night.
And mandatory evacuations continued to grow as the fire raged.
More than 7% of the entire Colorado Springs population has now been forced out of their homes.
Evacuation Map for the Waldo Canyon Fire
At 9:50 p.m., mandatory evacuations were ordered for the Kissing Camels area, including south of Garden of the Gods Road, west of Centennial Boulevard, east of 30th Street, north of Fillmore St. and Fontmore Road.
At 8:10 p.m., evacuations were issued for north of Garden of the Gods, between I-25 and the western city limits.
At 6:50 p.m, evacuations were issued for Rockrimmon and Woodmen Valley, west and north of Woodmen Road and I-25 and west and north of Rockrimmon Boulevard and Vindicator Drive. They also included Pinon Valley and Pine Cliff, west and north of Garden of the Gods Road and I-25 to Centennial north to Ute Valley Park
At 4:25 p.m., evacuations were issued for 9,371 city residents in the North Mountain Shadows and Peregrine areas, north of Chuck Wagon Road, west of Centennial to Orchard Valley Road, northwest of Orchard Valley Road to Woodman Road, officials said. The order covered 3,619 homes and other buildings in the city's western foothills.
The Air Force Academy ordered the evacuation of its Pine Valley and Douglas Valley base housing units. The portion of the academy that houses cadets has not being evacuated at this time.
AFA evacuees were told to take blankets, pillows, toiletries and clothing for at least three days and go to Fort Carson, where they will be housed at the Carson Special Events Center.
Red Cross Evacuation Centers are at Cheyenne Mountain High School, Summit Elementary School in Divide, Lewis Palmer High School in Monument, and the YMCA.
"I want everybody who's been affected to know this city loves you and cares about you. And we'll do everything we can to be there for you," Bach said.
The Red Cross has established a number for evacuees at 719-632-3563.
There are several community information lines, available 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. for people with questions about the fire. These numbers are to the joint information center: (719) 520-7058; (720) 402-7935; (720) 202-4510; (720) 237-9947: (720) 237-3417
Multiple Homes Reported Burned
The nearly 60-year-old ranch Flying W Ranch burned down, along with several homes in the Mountain Shadows area, according to the ranch's website. The well-known dude ranch is a venue for Western stage shows, weddings, reunions and other gatherings.
"It's a sad day for the Flying W Ranch. With much sadness, we have to report that the Flying W Ranch as well as several homes in the Mountain Shadows area has in fact been burned to the ground," a statement on the website said. "We ask that in this sad time that you remember the Flying W and the Wolfe family who has owned and operated the Flying W Ranch since 1953 ... We ask that you pray for all the families within the area, and assure you we will rebuild."
"We're prepared to do what it takes to keep people safe and keep the firefighters safe and engage (the fire) where we need to," Incident Commander Rich Harvey said.
The wildfire raging west of Colorado Springs is the highest priority fire in the nation, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin.
"It should be shocking to all of you as much as it is to me
and Ive seen a lot of fire activity
Ive just never seen one move this quickly," Maketa said.
He estimated that it could be weeks before evacuees may be back and a month before the fire is contained.
"This is a long and hot season and we'll be in it to the end," Maketa said.
Citizens Question Lack Of Resources On Fire
When questioned about the lack of resources on the fire, Maketa and others defended the number of firefighters and air support they had on Tuesday.
"Two days ago we had 450 firefighters, and now we've had 800 and tomorrow, we'll have many more," Maketa said. "You can't just bring in 10,000 people and say go fight a fire. It would be uncoordinated. It would be dangerous. And as we bring people in, we want to support them
like having food, having a place for them to stay, having a place for them to rest. But most importantly, deploying them where they are efficiently used, where they can make a difference and they're safe. And we're building that up as we go."
"Tonight is not the time to point fingers. When the fire is 65 mph, you could have 1,000 people. It's hard to take a stand on 65mph winds," said Jerri Marr, Forest Supervisor on the Pike & San Isabel National Forests, Comanche and Cimarron National Grasslands.
The Waldo Canyon Fire is encroaching homes in the Cedar Heights subdivision.
"This is not the time to talk about what happened. Well get through all that as the days and weeks go on, but were still in the middle of this
Were not done
were not even close," Brown said. "What we got to do is get this thing under control and get it buttoned up as fast as we can."
Residents of Mountain Shadows were allowed back briefly to get important belongings and medications on Tuesday morning. However, because of the change in fire activity around 9 a.m., Colorado Springs police quickly ended the escorted visits.
Smoke quickly blanketed Interstate 25, and drivers heading south to Colorado Springs said it appeared as if they were driving through fog.
Sheriff's Office Likely To Start Arson Investigation
The El Paso County Sheriff's Office asked people to call a tip line -- 719-477-4205 -- with any information about how the fire started. Anyone who was around Waldo Canyon or Pyramid Mountain on Friday or Saturday is encouraged to call.
Maketa said asking for information likely starts an arson investigation.
"Could this be the person that was starting the fires up in Teller County? We do not believe this is related to the Teller County arson activity whatsoever," said Maketa.
Investigators have not been to the area where the fire started.
"When it is safe, we will try to get a team up in there to try to identify the point of origin and the cause," said Maketa.
Fighting The Fire
A Type I Team took control of the management of the fire on Monday. A Type 1 command is used in complex emergencies needing resources from multiple agencies.
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