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WALDO CANYON FIRE: Blaze leaves barren landscape

June 28, 2012
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There was no rest for a shellshocked region Wednesday as the Waldo Canyon fire forced thousands more people to evacuate, while residents in the neighborhoods ripped by fire Tuesday night searched for clues as to the fate of their homes.

The haze cleared long enough to reveal an apocalyptic scene, as city and county officials described entire blocks reduced to ash, cars charred and spot fires erupting through the day. Wind — strong enough to tear branches off blackened trees — kept fire crews busy.

Part of Holland Park, all of Green Mountain Falls, Chipita Park, Cascade and parts of Woodland Park were put on mandatory evacuation orders, while residents of Pleasant Valley, portions of Monument and parts of southern Douglas County and eastern Teller County were told to prepare for evacuation.

Teller County authorities said if a second phase of Woodland Park mandatory evacuations were deemed necessary, the city would be emptied of its 7,000 residents.

More than 32,000 people are evacuated, and shelters are set up across the region. Wednesday evening, the fire was estimated to have burned 18,500 acres.

In Colorado Springs, hundreds of homes in the Mountain Shadows area were reported to be destroyed after strong afternoon winds overwhelmed firefighters’ attempts to contain the fire to the west of Rampart Range Road and flames raced over ridgetops and exploded into the city’s western neighborhoods.

With thunderstorms blowing in from the west Wednesday afternoon, firefighters feared the potential for a disastrous repeat.

Embers are flying half a mile ahead of the main fire and starting spot fires, said incident commander Rich Harvey. Sixty-five percent of them have ignited the trees, shrubs or grasses where they land.

“I hate wind. I wish it would go away,” he said Wednesday afternoon.

Harvey said the strong and shifting winds have made the fire unpredictable, with the fire burning south one day, west the next and east after that.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve never seen a (fire) progression map like that,” he said.

Firefighters from cities throughout Colorado streamed into the city throughout the day to join the battle. Firefighters reported saving many homes and other structures inside the fire’s perimeter, but unpredictable thrusts of the fire meant that others were left to burn.

Harvey said fire crews have generally been able to confine the fire inside the existing perimeter in northwestern Colorado Springs, while continuing to preserve structures and unburned areas within the fire zone. The afternoon winds, however, have the potential to repeat Tuesday’s blowup in the neighborhoods just north of the ones already hit, he said.

“You can fool us once maybe, but not twice,” Harvey said. “We were prepared for it yesterday, but it moved astronomically fast. Today, we are prepared for it to move astronomically fast.”

Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach said he toured Flying W Ranch on Wednesday morning and that there was little left of the beloved institution.

“It’s gone,” Bach said. “Everything is scorched.”

The scene was “surreal,” with block after block leveled in an ash-stricken moonscape, said Amy Lathen, an El Paso County commissioner. In many places, houses left unscathed — perhaps either through the work of firefighters or the lay of the terrain — stood next to the foundation of a house burned to the ground.

Halfway through her tour Wednesday, Lathen watched El Paso County Fire Marshall Scott Campbell shovel dirt on mulch that began smoking in the afternoon winds.

As he worked, more smoke began billowing between two houses that survived untouched by flame throughout the night.

Jumping through the smoke and grabbing a garden hose, Campbell and another firefighter doused the threats. The ordeal was a small snapshot of the challenge facing firefighters after the firestorm.

Windfed embers sparked anew. Several gas line leaked. Trees stood perilously unstable.

“It’s an incredible story of how they have saved houses,” Lathen said.

As bleak as the updates seemed to be Wednesday, there were accomplishments and reasons for hope. No one is known to have been injured or killed in the fire, Bach said, and all of the evacuations have been conducted safely.

Fire crews have continued to protect the homes in the Cedar Heights neighborhood, even though the area has now been in flames for three days. University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak, who lives in the area, praised firefighters and said she hoped for the best, especially if the winds cooperated Wednesday afternoon.

Harvey said firefighters continue to hold the fire’s southern edge, along U.S. Highway 24, and now have just one hot spot that ground crews can’t reach. He was also optimistic about the area around Rampart Reservoir.

Others had less reason for optimism. City Council President Scott Hente said that he believed his Mountain Shadows home was destroyed, and Councilman Val Snider said he didn’t know what happened to his house.

“When you looked at that hillside, it looked like a special-effects movie,” Hente said of the fire’s march toward his neighborhood.

Former fire chief Steve Cox, who now serves as Bach’s chief economic vitality officer, said officials are still assessing the damage and plan to hold neighborhood meetings to inform residents whether their houses survived before making a public announcement. He didn’t have a timeline for a final tally of the damage or when homeowners would be notified.

At the fire’s northern edge, crews attempted to hold a line at the Air Force Academy, even as the cadets continued training and members of the incoming class of 2016 began arriving. The residential neighborhoods at the academy were evacuated Tuesday, although some residents were allowed to briefly return Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, 90 firefighters battled flames that chewed up 10 acres along the southwest border of the Air Force Academy. Spot fires ignited across a dozer line on Wednesday morning, but firefighters from across Colorado and Wyoming battled back.

By Wednesday evening, the crews kept the flames 3 miles from the Pine Valley housing area.

El Paso County’s Citizen Service Center at 1675 W. Garden of the Gods Road was evacuated Tuesday, although many county departments were able to reopen their phone lines or offers services at satellite locations Wednesday.

The service center evacuation stopped the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s count of Tuesday’s primary vote with 73,801 votes counted, spokeswoman Alissa Vander Veen said. An unknown number of votes remain to be counted, and the office hopes to resume counting Thursday.

What started the fire around noon Saturday near a popular hiking trail in Waldo Canyon is still a mystery. Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation are helping El Paso County authorities in trying to figure out what started the Waldo Canyon fire, an FBI spokesman confirmed Wednesday.

“The FBI Denver Division is working closely with local, state, and federal law enforcement to determine if any of the wildland fires resulted from criminal activity,” local FBI spokesman Dave Joly wrote in an email statement.

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