COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Fire crews fought to save the U.S. Air Force Academy and residents begged for information on the fate of their homes Wednesday after a night of terror sent thousands of people fleeing a raging Colorado Springs wildfire.
More than 30,000 have been displaced by the fire, including thousands who frantically packed up belongings Tuesday night after it barreled into neighborhoods in the foothills west and north of Colorado's second-largest city. With flames looming overhead, they clogged roads shrouded in smoke and flying embers, their fear punctuated by explosions of bright orange flame that signaled yet another house had been claimed.
"The sky was red, the wind was blowing really fast and there were embers falling from the sky," said Simone Covey, a 26-year-old mother of three who fled an apartment near Garden of the Gods park and was staying at a shelter. "I didn't really have time to think about it. I was just trying to keep my kids calm."
Wilma Juachon sat under a tree at an evacuation center, wearing a mask to block the smoke. A tourist from California, she was evacuated from a fire near Rocky Mountain National Park last week and, now, from her Colorado Springs hotel.
"I said I hope it never happens again, and guess what?" Juachon said.
Shifting winds challenged firefighters trying to contain the 29-square-mile Waldo Canyon blaze and extinguish hot spots inside the city's western suburbs. Winds were calmer Wednesday night.
Some 3,000 more people were evacuated to the west of the fire, Teller County authorities said Wednesday, and Teller County courts were closed through Thursday.
Meanwhile, the White House said President Barack Obama will tour fire-stricken areas of Colorado on Friday and thank firefighters battling some of the worst fires to hit the American West in decades.
Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey said Obama's visit to Colorado, considered a key battleground state in the presidential election, would not tax the city's already-strained police force. Gov. John Hickenlooper said he expected the president might sign a disaster declaration that would allow for more federal aid.
The full scope of the fire remained unknown. So intense were the flames and so thick the smoke that rescue workers weren't able to tell residents which structures were destroyed and which ones were still standing. Steve Cox, a spokesman for Mayor Steve Bach, reported that at least dozens of homes had been consumed.
Indeed, authorities were too busy Wednesday struggling to save homes in near-zero visibility to count how many had been destroyed in what is the latest test for a drought-parched and tinder-dry state. Crews also were battling a deadly and destructive wildfire in northern Colorado and another that flared Tuesday night near Boulder.
Carey said officials had no plans to release the numbers of homes destroyed — insisting residents have a right to be told first, in private.
FBI spokesman Dave Joly said federal investigators are working closely with local and state law enforcement to determine if any of Colorado's fires were deliberately set or resulted from criminal activity. He did not elaborate.
Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown said his personnel heroically saved many homes in the midst of the firestorm. The strategy: protecting houses adjacent to those in flames to prevent a domino effect and then racing to the next suburban hot spot, a technique he called "triage." Federal firefighters worked with U.S. Army bulldozer crews from nearby Fort Carson to create perimeter lines.
The Waldo Canyon Fire burned about 10 acres along the southwest boundary of the Air Force Academy campus. No injuries or damage to structures — including the iconic Cadet Chapel — were reported.
Academy officials were relocating about 550 cadets off academy grounds late Wednesday. About 200 cadets in summer academics were being moved to the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, and 350 others in airmanship and other training programs were released to local sponsor families, the school said. The cadet area isn't immediately threatened, and an incoming class of more than 1,000 is still scheduled to arrive Thursday.
Fort Carson had 121 soldiers building firebreaks around parts of the academy, aided by equipment including 10 heavy bulldozers, four excavators, 13 military transportation and support vehicles, and one commercial road grader, Army officials said.
The Red Cross was accommodating victims at its shelters, with space enough for perhaps 2,500 people. Most evacuees were staying with family and friends.
Colorado wasn't the only state affected by fire, as several burned throughout the parched West.
Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, said that with several fires burning, there is competition for firefighting resources, but "we're still at a point where we've got lots of available assets to mix and match on individual incidents."
Harbour said there's a difference between what incident commanders want and what they need to fight a fire effectively. And despite some criticism, he said the agency has been working to get equipment where it's needed most. Four military C-130 tankers, which can each carry up to 3,000 gallons of water, are positioned to cover the blazes burning near Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, as well as the entire Front Range if another fire were to break out, he said. At total of 18 air tankers were assigned to wildfires across the region.
Overall, there have been fewer fires and less acreage burned for the first six months of the year than for the same period in the previous six years. Some states are seeing fires earlier this year, but Harbour said resources are far from being exhausted.
"With over 10,000 firefighters in the Forest Service and the ability to get over 700 aircraft of all types, we're feeling cautiously confident when you look at the season as a whole," Harbour said.
Among the fires elsewhere in the West:
— A central Utah wildfire has destroyed at least 56 structures, mainly homes, and continues to burn with little containment, authorities said Wednesday. Officials expected the damage estimate to rise considerably as they continue their assessment of the fire-ravaged area between Fountain Green and Fairview and north across the Utah County line. Authorities were about halfway through their damage assessment of a fire that has burned about 72 square miles. Officials returned to an evacuated area and found a woman dead Tuesday.
— Wildfires that have torched more than 200 square miles and burned dozens of homes in southeastern Montana spread farther Wednesday, with additional evacuations ordered after a blaze south of Roundup jumped a perimeter line built by firefighters. The growing Dahl fire, which has burned more than 60 homes by one estimate, forced an unknown number of residents to leave their homes near its southern flank, on top of an estimated 600 people evacuated the day before.
"That's one of the most dangerous fires in the history of Montana," Gov. Brian Schweitzer said.
— A wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest has grown from about 2,000 acres to 12,000 acres, or nearly 19 square miles, officials said Wednesday. Authorities worked to get campers out of the area.
Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.