* Governor calls it Colorado's worst fire season
* Obama plans to visit state later this week
* Western states battling 35 large wildfires
(Updates evacuation figures, details; still no damage toll)
By Keith Coffman
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., June 27 Firefighters
struggled on Wednesday to beat back a fiercely aggressive
wildfire raging at the edge of Colorado Springs that has forced
at least 35 , 000 people from their homes and was nipping at the
edges of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The so-called Waldo Canyon Fire, fanned by gusting winds,
has gutted an unknown number of homes on the wooded fringes of
Colorado's second-most populous city and prompted more
evacuations as flames roared out of control for a fifth day.
President Barack Obama plans to pay a visit to the area on
Friday to view the damage, the White House said.
The blaze flared Tuesday night with sudden ferocity and
quickly overran fire containment lines, invading the
northwestern corner of the city. But officials have declined to
characterize the extent of property damage there.
Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown told Reuters that he
had "a number in mind" for the approximate tally of homes lost
in Tuesday night's firestorm but did not want to release that
information until residents of those dwellings were notified.
The blaze left an orange hue over Colorado Springs, and a
smoky haze hung in the air, so thick in places that the giant,
roiling pall of smoke that continued to billow into the sky over
the city was obscured from the ground.
Governor John Hickenlooper said after flying over the fire
zone Tuesday night that he saw many homes destroyed in a
"surreal," luminous landscape below, but did not give a number.
Pressed for an estimate of property losses on Wednesday,
fire information officer Greg Heule said, "We've started the
process of identifying the structures, but we haven't completed
the inventory," adding "there's still active fire in there."
Brown called the firestorm threatening his city - in a
metropolitan area of more than 650,000 people - "a monster" and
said that flames were "not even remotely close to being
The fire, which has scorched more than 15,000 acres (6,070
hectares) in the shadow of the famed Pikes Peak mountaintop, was
not as intense early on Wednesday as the day before. But
thunderstorms hampered firefighting efforts by bringing erratic
winds, whipping flames from one direction to another.
"I've never seen any progression like that," incident
commander Rich Harvey said at a late-afternoon news conference.
"The winds keep shifting on us. Again the winds are causing us
problems out here."
The number of evacuees stood at 32,000 on Tuesday night. But
after additional residents in and around the nearby town of
Woodland Park, population 7,600, were ordered from their homes
on Wednesday, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said the
number displaced people had grown by about 3,000.
Colorado wildfires have killed four people so far this year
in what the governor called "the worst fire season in the
history of Colorado," but no serious injuries from the Waldo
Fire were reported on Wednesday.
AIR FORCE SENDS HELP
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, officials said.
Proximity to the academy, which saw a spot fire break out on
its grounds in one vacant corner, seemed to bode well for U.S.
government support in responding to the emergency.
The Air Force said it was dispatching up to 25 military
helicopters, joining four giant C-130 air tankers already
devoted to the effort. Over half of federal firefighting
resources are deployed in Colorado, the White House said.
Fire commanders said they have called for reinforcements and
expect to have as many as 1,000 personnel on the lines soon.
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.
Animal welfare groups said shelters had taken in scores of
dogs, cats and even a turtle and pet rats displaced by the fire.
Of particular concern to veterinarians was the risk that horses
could suffer colic from being moved too quickly and that pets
were being spooked by the steady wail of sirens.
The Waldo Canyon Fire was one of about a dozen burning
across Colorado. The biggest of those, the High Park fire near
Fort Collins in the northern part of the state, has consumed
87,250 acres (35,300 ha) but was 65 percent contained. It now
ranks as the most destructive wildfire on record in Colorado
after devouring about 250 homes.
Elsewhere across the Rocky Mountain West, a wildfire in
Montana that has scorched 19,000 acres (7,690 ha) 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 (160 km) south of
Salt Lake City on Tuesday, marking the first fatality in a blaze
that has scorched more than 46,190 acres (18,692 ha) of rolling
hills covered by parched cheatgrass and sagebrush.
Colorado accounts for eight of 35 large, active wildfires
being fought across the country. The bulk of them were in nine
western states - Colorado, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota,
New Mexico, Nevada, 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
Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)