Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes around Colorado Springs, Colo. as the Waldo Canyon Fire consumed more than 5,000 acres, the Denver Post reported. High winds and 100-plus-degree temperatures have worked against firefighters.
The El Paso County sheriff told reporters Tuesday night that 32,000 people were evacuated in the area.
The U.S. Air Force Academy installation commander also issued an evacuation order for residents on the complex, an Air Force statement said.
A curtain of flame and smoke teetered above the academy’s Falcon Stadium; 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.
“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.”
North of Denver, 26 homes in a southern Boulder subdivision were ordered to evacuate Tuesday afternoon as firefighters work to contain a blaze that consumed 300 acres in four hours, 9news.com reported. Boulder, a college town of 100,000 residents, is about 30 miles from Denver.
Officials say the Flagstaff Fire, as it is being called, is moving quickly toward the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a federally funded research facility, 9news.com reported. Three aircraft and a massive C-130 air tanker have been dispatched to fight the fire, which has been described as an “extreme” blaze.
“We’re about one ridge over from the city of Boulder,” Boulder County sheriff’s spokesman Rick Brough said of the fire at a news briefing, according to the Denver Post.
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 Wednesday, meaning extreme fire danger. Parts of Nevada and Kansas were under a red flag warning, according to the National Weather Service.
Colorado has endured nearly a week of 100-plus degree days and low humidity, sapping moisture from timber and grass, creating a devastating formula for volatile wildfires across the state and punishing conditions for firefighters.
“When it’s that hot, it just dries the fuels even more. That can make the fuels explosive,” said Steve Segin, a fire spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
Tuesday was the fifth consecutive day with temperatures of 100 degrees or higher in Denver, tying a record set in 2005 and 1989. On Monday, Denver set a record with 105 degrees.
Other areas in the state have also been topping 100 degrees, including northern Colorado where the state’s second largest wildfire in history is burning.
Segin said such prolonged heat is “extremely taxing” physically on firefighters, who are working long days and carrying heavy gear.
The wildfires are also posing a threat to tourism.
Several large wildfires across the West have placed some tourist destinations from Montana to New Mexico in danger just at the height of midsummer family road-trip season, putting cherished Western landscapes at risk along with hordes of vacationers.