WALDO CANYON FIRE: Progress made but danger still smolders

June 26, 2012
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Firefighters checked fierce winds and high temperatures with airplanes, helicopters and bulldozers as they made headway against the still-growing Waldo Canyon fire on Monday.

At 4 p.m. Monday, the fire was estimated to have grown by about 1,000 acres during the day to 4,500 acres, but incident commander Rich Harvey said the fire was about 5 percent contained and that crews had gained “anchor points” in Cedar Heights and Cascade from which they hoped to grow the containment lines.

“We’re never just satisfied with 5 percent, we’re looking what we can do tomorrow,” Harvey said.

Still, given a record-setting high of 98 degrees and winds that gusted near 40 mph, the signs of progress were welcome news Monday evening.

“This is a city that’s really pulling together right now,” Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach said.

Jerri Marr, forest supervisor for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests said Waldo Canyon was a top priority for the U.S. Forest Service.

“The values at risk still make this fire the No. 1 in the country right now,” she said, because of the fire’s complexity, its potential to move in several directions, shifting winds and its proximity to residential areas.

Nature won’t be giving fire crews much help Tuesday. The National Weather Service is forecasting highs near 96, winds gusting to 30 mph and a 20 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Fire officials said rain could aid their efforts to rein in the blaze, but high winds and lightning may make things worse.

“This is still a very dangerous situation, still unpredictable. It has a mind of its own,” El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said of the fire, adding that 2,000 homes worth $560 million are threatened.

Highs will stay near 90 for the rest of the week, with a chance of thunderstorms again Thursday and Friday, although winds are predicted to slacken.

Monday, all eyes were on the skies. For much of the morning, onlookers anxiously awaited the arrival of C-130’s equipped to drop 2,700 gallons of fire retardant at a pass. Four of the big planes took off from Peterson Air Force Base just after noon and flew to Pueblo to be loaded with retardant, dropping their first loads of the liquid about 1:30 p.m. But the thick smoke above the fire limited the effectiveness of the aircraft, which were only able to make three drops.

“There are some times you need to call ‘knock it off’ and live to fight another day,” said Lt. Col. Dave Condit, with the 302nd Airlift Wing from Peterson.

Throughout the day, helicopters ferried buckets of water from the Glen Eyrie Reservoir in Kissing Camels to the front lines in the Cedar Heights neighborhood.

Flames periodically shot up several stories high from just behind homes in Cedar Heights, where, Harvey said, the fire was “bumping up” against a bulldozed fire line. No structures have been damaged by the blaze since it began Saturday, and Harvey said protecting homes was a top priority.

About 4,825 people are still unable to return home as Cedar Heights, parts of Mountain Shadows, Cascade, Chipita Park, Green Mountain Falls are under mandatory evacuation orders. U.S. Highway 24 remained closed from Cave of the Winds to Crystola. Those evacuations could last for several more days, officials said.

The fire spread to the upper reaches of Queens Canyon, above Glen Eyrie, the castlelike home built by Colorado Springs’ founder William Jackson Palmer that is now a Christian conference center. Bulldozers stood by to protect the historic building. Fire officials remained concerned for the Mountain Shadows neighborhood.

“The fire line we have around Queen’s Canyon is mostly along Rampart Road,” Harvey said. “We’re attempting to keep the fire from spreading east.”

So far, the direct costs of the fire amount to $750,000, Harvey said, although that’s likely to rise quickly with the C-130’s operating at the tune of $7,000 an hour and 600 firefighters working on the ground.

The indirect costs are much higher, with many of the region’s major attractions shut down in the middle of the peak season for visitors.

In a national television interview, Bach set a positive tone, telling CNN that “Colorado Springs is safe and open for business.”

One of the summer’s biggest events, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, was still a go as of Monday. The annual motor race to the summit of Pikes Peak that draws thousands of visitors from around the world, is scheduled for July 8, with a fan festival two days earlier.

Hill Climb officials will talk this week with officials from Colorado Springs, the U.S. Forest Service and El Paso and Teller counties, said race operations director Megan Leatham.

Elsewhere in the city, Colorado Springs was taking no chances. Garden of the Gods, North Cheyenne Cañon and Palmer parks were closed, along with the Red Rock Canyon and Blodgett open spaces and the Pikes Peak Highway. The city put a stricter burn ban into effect at 6 p.m. Monday and recreational fires, bonfires, model rockets, open burns and fires in fireplaces are prohibited.

There is still no word on what started the Waldo Canyon fire on Saturday. Colorado Springs Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Lari Sevene said arson hasn’t been ruled out. She said it will take investigators a couple of days to get to the source of the fire.

Arson is suspected in a grass fire discovered Monday afternoon near Fountain that was quickly extinguished by Fountain firefighters. Arson is also suspected in about 20 fires in Teller County in the last week.

Maketa said the Teller fires, however, didn’t appear to be related to the Waldo Canyon blaze.

“We do not believe it is related to the Teller County arson activity whatsoever,” he said.

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