COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. Firefighters struggled on Wednesday to beat back a wildfire raging at the edge of Colorado Springs that doubled in size overnight, forced more than 32,000 people from their homes and was nipping at the edges of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The blaze, fanned by hot winds, has charred a number of homes on the wooded edges of the city and was prompting fresh evacuations on Wednesday.
President Barack Obama plans to travel to the area on Friday to view the damage. But in the chaos of the fire's advance, officials could not say exactly how many homes were lost or how many more people might join the ranks of the displaced.
Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown called the firestorm threatening his city - in a metropolitan area of more than 650,000 people - "a monster" and said at this point flames were "not even remotely close to being contained."
The fire, which has charred 15,517 acres in the shadow of the famed Pikes Peak mountaintop, was not as intense early on Wednesday as the day before, but would likely build up again as the temperature rises during the day, fire information officer Rob Deyerberg said.
The number of evacuees stood at 32,000 on Tuesday night, before some residents in Woodland Park, population 7,600, and surrounding areas were also told to leave their homes, Deyerberg said. He could not provide a total number of evacuees.
"The evacuation area is expanding as a precaution," he said.
The blaze left an orange hue over Colorado Springs and the smell of smoke permeated the air. A spot fire hit on a vacant, southwest corner of the grounds of the Air Force Academy, which continues to operate but is closed to visitors, officials said.
Colorado wildfires have killed four people this year, but no serious injuries from the Waldo Fire were reported on Wednesday.
"This is the worst fire season in the history of Colorado," Governor John Hickenlooper told a news conference on Tuesday, after he flew into Colorado Springs to tour the fire zone.
The Air Force Academy said the evacuation zone included two communities of single-family homes on its grounds housing around 2,100 civilian and military personnel and their families.
Despite the blaze, the academy will welcome a class of over 1,000 new cadets on Thursday, he said.
Over half of the federal government's firefighting resources are deployed in Colorado, the White House said.
COLUMNS OF EVACUEES
At a gas station in Colorado Springs, Andrew Heintzelman, 34, said he had been on the roof of his home in the nearby community of Mountain Shadows on Tuesday trying to keep the flames at bay but had since been forced to flee.
"I was spraying the hose on the shingles and the cops came through the neighborhood and told me to get out now," said Heintzelman, 34, who lives with his mother.
Thunderstorms in the area were expected to hurt firefighting efforts by causing erratic winds, which could shift from one direction to the next, fire officials said.
"All that kind of squirrelly behavior makes it really unsafe for anyone to be in or around the fire," fire information officer Anne Rys-Sikora said.
Household pets in the area were also forced into shelter due to the approaching flames. The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region in recent days has taken in 252 animals, most of them dogs and cats but with everything from rats to a turtle in the mix, said Erica Meyer, a spokeswoman for the group.
Many horses were taken to the Norris Penrose Event Center in Colorado Springs, said Brenda Vawter, who works at the Colorado Equine Veterinary Services clinic.
Wildfires also were burning in other parts of Colorado - where the High Park fire has consumed 87,250 acres but was 65 percent contained - and in Utah and Montana on Wednesday.
A wildfire in Montana that has scorched 19,000 acres in the eastern part of the state has forced 600 residents to leave their homes, said Kent Atwood, a state hazard mitigation officer. An unknown number of houses were destroyed in Montana.
In Utah, authorities found a body in the ashes of the fast-moving Wood Hollow Fire about 100 miles south of Salt Lake City on Tuesday, marking the first fatality in a blaze that has scorched more than 46,190 acres of rolling hills covered by parched cheatgrass and sagebrush.
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.
(Additional reporting by Ellen Miller in Grand Junction, Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City and Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; writing by Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Eric Walsh)