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WALDO CANYON FIRE: 'Firestorm of epic proportions'

June 27, 2012
photo - Homes are destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows are of Colorado Springs, Colorado on Tuesday, June 26, 2012.  Photo by JERILEE BENNETT, THE GAZETTE
Homes are destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows are of Colorado Springs, Colorado on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. Photo by JERILEE BENNETT, THE GAZETTE 

“OH DEAR GOD.... this is terrifying.”

That short post on Twitter captured the fear and horror that engulfed Colorado Springs on Tuesday as the erratic, fast-moving Waldo Canyon fire leapt into the western edges of the city, destroyed dozens of homes in Mountain Shadows — including the historic Flying W Ranch — and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in the northwest quadrant of the city.

“This is a firestorm of epic proportions,” Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown said during an evening news conference.

As flames shot up on the eastern face of the mountains, people ran to office building windows, pulled their cars to the side of the road and stopped on sidewalks to absorb the tragedy unfolding before them. Twitter was flooded with expressions of sadness and terror. Cellphone lines were overwhelmed.

No injuries or fatalities have been reported.

“My city is burning,” one resident lamented.

Officials in charge of fighting the fire said it was too early to pinpoint how many homes were destroyed, but starting in the late afternoon, police and fire scanners were filled with tales of multiple homes burning at a time. Firefighters went into “triage” mode, going past homes that were beyond help to save those that could be saved.

“We can’t save this one structure, but we’re going to save everything around it,” one firefighter vowed on the fire department radio.

Coincidentally, the flames exploded as officials in charge of fighting the fire held an afternoon news conference to discuss their tactics and their concerns over the fire’s rapid spread north around the Queen’s Canyon area. The briefing was interrupted with a stark, horrifying announcement: Everyone in Mountain Shadows and Peregrine needed to evacuate immediately.

“This has been a very bad day,” Mayor Steve Bach said.

“That fire exploded. Many of you were here when it happened. I was here,” he said. “It exploded far beyond what could have been predicted.”

And the evacuation boundaries kept spreading: into Pinon Valley and up to the Air Force Academy, to the point where it included virtually all areas north of West Fillmore Street and west of Interstate 25, north to the air Force Academy property. The Air Force Academy also evacuated its two residential areas, Douglass Valley and Pine Valley. In the late evening, Kissing Camels and Holland Park were put under a mandatory evacuation.

With the fire bearing down near Mountain Shadows, the mass evacuation of that neighborhood, as well as Peregrine, Rockrimmon, Pinon Valley and others, created massive traffic jams. Officials had to alter the flow of traffic along Woodmen Road and shut down a portion of I-25.

“Even as I got out, I couldn’t count the number of fires on the hillside,” said City Council President Scott Hente, who believes his Mountain Shadows home was destroyed. “All I saw was the whole hill on fire and you could see it start to move down and I couldn’t look at it at that point. We just drove out.”

Officials estimate that 32,000 people have been displaced by the fire, including those who were evacuated earlier in the week.

The Pikes Peak Chapter of the American Red Cross opened up two more shelters — one at Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument and another at the southeast branch of the YMCA — bringing the total in the area to four, with beds for up to 750 people. Counselors were also on hand at the shelter at Cheyenne Mountain High School.

At the Southeast Y, about 15 people were in the shelter about 9:30 p.m. John Hobson crammed as much of his home into the trunk of his hatchback as he could. He was evacuated from his home in the sliver of Mountain Shadows that was cleared out on Saturday, and he’s been staying with a friend. On Tuesday, he was able to briefly return to his home before he was evacuated a second time with flames glowing nearby.

“Seeing where that fire was and knowing where my house was, I’m sure it burned to the ground,” he said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper landed at Coronado High School after a media briefing on the Waldo Canyon fire late Tuesday night.

He said looking down on the fire from the air was like looking at a military invasion.

“It was almost like looking at the worst movie set you could imagine,” he said. “You could see exactly where the fire came down. All the bright spots, as you got closer, you saw they were people’s homes. They weren’t trees on fire. They were people’s homes, burned to the ground, block after block. It’s almost surreal. It’s nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

Although the fire has been burning since Saturday and has threatened homes near Cedar Heights, few people expected it to explode as it did. Fueled by 65 mph winds in a scorching heat, the fire jumped containment lines firefighters said were the best hope for keeping the fire at bay. Bach said fire officials were “stunned.”

“We had a very difficult day with the weather and wind conditions,” said incident commander Rich Harvey. “The fire breached primary and secondary containment lines.”

C-130s made some passes early in the day, but as the fire exploded, the heavy smoke prevented them from flying. Brown also said there had been “generous offers” of help from the military, but there would be a learning curve involved because they’d have to be trained.

As of 10:30 p.m., the fire was estimated to have burned 6,500 acres, but officials expect the number to grow once infrared imaging is conducted overnight. There’s also a flood watch in effect for the area, with the potential of heavy rainfall hitting the burn scar area Wednesday afternoon and evening, the National Weather Service said.

It would simply add to the misery of a miserable situation, but Hente believes the community will come through.

“This could possibly be one of the worst disasters in the history of Colorado Springs,” he Hente. “We’re a great community. We’ll survive this. We’ll get out of this.”

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