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WALDO CANYON FIRE: Firefighters brace for challenges

June 25, 2012
photo - The smokey sunset Sunday over the Waldo Canyon fire. Photo by KIM DUGAY
The smokey sunset Sunday over the Waldo Canyon fire. Photo by KIM DUGAY 

All roads leading to Manitou Springs were clogged Sunday night as residents made their way home through a blood-orange, smoky sunset after an evacuation that began less than 24 hour earlier.

The aggressive Waldo Canyon fire that began raging through forested hillsides west of Colorado Springs Saturday, filled the region with dense, bitter smoke Sunday night that settled heavily on the west side. Residents who had watched the smoke plumes and torching trees throughout the day pulled to roadsides to gaze at the brilliant hues and snap pictures of the orange orb.

The sun was setting on the last day of command for local officials, who turned management of the uncontained, 3,600-acre Waldo Canyon blaze over to federal officials. Sunday was a transition day for command teams and their firefighters — always a dangerous time, fire information officer Greg Heule said Sunday night.

Fire crews and commanders expected to wake up Monday to smoke clinging to the city as well as dry, hot winds and a challenging new chain of command. They will fight an aggressive and unusual fire, fire officials said Sunday.

The Waldo Canyon fire has taken an odd, and often alarming, shape as it grows across the hillsides. It has three arms — or in wildland lingo, heads — stretching in three directions across the bone-dry forests. On Sunday it grew northwest toward Cedar Heights, a luxury-home gated community that was evacuated Saturday. The fire also reached downhill and southwest toward Highway 24, but did not cross the road, Heule said. The third arm is reaching northward toward Cascade and Green Mountain Falls.

Conditions and rugged terrain proved too dangerous for active firefighting Saturday night, Heule said, and Sunday night was shaping up to be similarly difficult. Typically, when ground crews are kept away, other crews will monitor the blaze all night from its fringes and from the air.

The fire moved rapidly on Sunday across U.S. Forest Service lands, thriving in the near-100 degree temperatures, visibly burgeoning before the eyes of command officials and residents who watched it from afar.

“We know it has grown, we just don’t know how much,” Heule said Sunday. Officials were waiting for a late-night infrared flight to highlight the fire’s hot points and better measure the acreage consumed.

As of Sunday, the fire had not damaged any homes, but 6,000 evacuated residents were still being kept from their homes Sunday night. Although Manitou Springs residents headed back home after their mass exodus, Cedar Heights, Cascade, Green Mountain Falls and Chipita Park residents remained on evacuation.

The Manitou Springs City Council and the Manitou fire chief made the decision Sunday to lift the evacuation edict, said Rev. Dave Hunting, the fire department’s chaplain and spokesman.

“We do, however, still have units on standby,” Hunting said.

Shifting winds raised the hopes of Manitou Springs city officials, who were confident that the fire had changed direction, veering away from the city.

People were confident too, driving around roadblocks before they were removed about 8 p.m.

Earlier Sunday, encroaching flames leapt into the Cedar Heights neighborhood, said Heule. Colorado Springs firefighters had worked through the neighborhood, clearing it of dangerously combustible vegetation, effectively removing food for the fire. When the flames came close, no homes were damaged, Heule said.

Four-hundred-fifty firefighters worked within the conflagration Sunday, and more were expected to flood in overnight. By Monday morning, a Type 1 federally-funded incident command team, the highest level available, will have taken charge of the fire, bringing in rigs packed with equipment from Texas.

Until then, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office worked in conjunction with the Colorado Springs Fire Department and the U.S. Forest Service organized the fire-fighting efforts. Four single engine air tankers circled the flames Sunday along with two helicopters.

El Paso County officials and state-wide politicians pushed for federal fire resources Sunday. County Commissioner Sallie Clark and her colleagues declared the Waldo Canyon burn a disaster, allowing the county to appropriate federal funds, aircraft and crews to join the battle.

“Our job is to provide the financing in order to get the job done,” Clark said, referring to local elected officials.

Four C-130 aircraft are slated to join the fight around noon on Monday. Two of the aircraft will be from the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, a reserve unit. Two will be from the 153rd Airlift Wing, a Wyoming Air National Guard unit. All four aircraft were also made available to crews fighting the High Park fire.

The planes will likely carry 2,600 gallons of retardant, less than their full-capacity of 3,000 due to weight concerns. High temperatures mixed with altitude make for thin air, prompting the change, officials said.

Residents and city officials thronged the fire’s incident command centers, which were moved from a west side Safeway to Coronado High School and Holmes Middle School Sunday.

Until federal resources could provide more, a few volunteers from the Pikes Peak Fire Fighters Association Fire Rehab Services were charged with cooking food and amassing beverages and snacks for exhausted crews. Donations of food, ice, water and sports drinks poured into the volunteers’ headquarters at Coronado by the hundreds.

A constant stream of cars filed into the high school parking lot to drop off trunk-loads of water and ice. Firefighters drove three trucks down from the fire’s front lines to pick up loads of water and hamburgers, donated by Wendy’s. The Fire Rehab volunteers were also tasked with preparing 150 meals by 7:30 p.m., to be picked up famished incident commanders.

Despite the cooler night-time temperatures, the Waldo Canyon fire has disastrous potential, city officials said.

“I don’t think there’s a risk of anything more devastating than that thing right there,” Sheriff Terry Maketa said at an afternoon press conference.

Behind him the Waldo Canyon fire continued to burn, sending up one tendril of thick black smoke along the ridge-line.

“This is probably the greatest natural threat we have ever seen in this community in the past 30 to 40 years,” he said.

Gazette reporters Jakob Rodgers, Maria St. Louis-Sanchez and Daniel Chacon contributed to this report.

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