Jun 27, 2012 1:30 PM
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) -- Officials say dozens of homes have been destroyed by a wildfire threatening Colorado Springs, but the heat and flames remain too intense for authorities to fully assess the damage to the state's second-largest city.
Steve Cox, an aide to Mayor Steve Bach, offered the first estimate on the number of lost homes on Wednesday.
The towering blaze has forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents, including about 2,100 people from the U.S. Air Force Academy just north of Colorado Springs.
Fire information officer Rob Dyerberg says the blaze doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles.
Heavy smoke and ash billowed from the foothills west of the city of 419,000.
Bright yellow and orange flames flared in the night, often a signal that another home has been lost.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
Heat and flames from a destructive wildfire threatening Colorado's second-largest city were too intense Wednesday morning for authorities to fully assess the damage it caused overnight.
Officials don't know how many houses have been destroyed in the towering blaze that has forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents, Colorado Springs emergency management director Brett Waters said. Among those urgently evacuated Tuesday evening were residents at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The blaze doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles, fire information officer Rob Dyerberg said.
Heavy smoke and ash billowed from the mountain foothills west of the city. Bright yellow and orange flames flared in the night, often signaling another home lost to the Waldo Canyon Fire, the No. 1 priority for the nation's firefighters.
"It was like looking at the worst movie set you could imagine," Gov. John Hickenlooper said after flying over the 9-square-mile fire late Tuesday. "It's almost surreal. You look at that, and it's like nothing I've seen before."
With flames cresting a ridge high above its campus, the Air Force Academy told more than 2,100 residents to evacuate 600 households.
As curtain of flame and smoke hung above the academy's Falcon Stadium late Tuesday, billowing gray clouds formed a backdrop to its aluminum, glass and steel Cadet Chapel, an icon of the academy. Elsewhere, police officers directing traffic and fleeing residents covered their faces with T-shirts and bandanas to breathe through the smoke.
"This is a firestorm of epic proportions," Colorado Springs Fire Chief Richard Brown said.
Christine Williams and her daughter Serina saw flames consuming grass just 30 yards from their northwest Colorado Springs apartment complex when they fled.
"It was pretty close," Serina Williams said Wednesday. "It was too close for comfort, that's for sure. It's like we've had our life swiped out from underneath us."
Sarah Safranek was in tears as she sought information about her house.
"Right now I'd rather not know," she said.
Thunderstorms are expected near the blaze in the afternoon, but incident commander Rich Harvey says they could bring unpredictable winds that would hinder firefighters' efforts near the city of 419,000 people.
The fire is about 5 percent contained, Harvey said.
Throughout the interior West, firefighters have toiled for days in searing, record-setting heat against fires fueled by prolonged drought. Most, if not all, of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana were under red flag warnings, meaning extreme fire danger.
The nation is experiencing "a super-heated spike on top of a decades-long warming trend," said Derek Arndt, head of climate monitoring at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.
Elsewhere in Colorado, the 136-square-mile High Park Fire has destroyed 257 homes, authorities said. That fire was triggered by lightning June 9.
And elsewhere in the West:
- A blaze in central Utah has burned down 56 structures, the majority of which are homes, officials said Wednesday. Authorities are about halfway through their damage assessment of a fire that has burned about 46,000 acres, or 72 square miles. Officials returned to an evacuated area and found a woman dead Tuesday.
- A wildfire north of Billings, Mont., caused hundreds of families to be evacuated from their homes as the blaze burned more than 18,000 acres, or about 28 square miles. Musselshell County Attorney Kent Sipe told The Billings Gazette that at least 60 homes had burned.
- A wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest has grown from about 2,000 acres to 12,000 acres, or nearly 19 square miles, officials said Wednesday.