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32K ordered to flee as Colorado blaze doubles in size

(CBS/AP) COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – A raging wildfire destroyed dozens of houses overnight and charred land on the edges of the Air Force Academy on Wednesday, while thick smoke and intense, towering flames kept officials from learning the full scope of damage to Colorado’s second-largest city.

The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles, and has so far 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 fire burned about 10 acres of land along the southwest boundary of the academy’s 28-square-mile boundary, but no injuries or damage to academy structures have been reported.

Officials said Wednesday academy firefighters were getting help from six local fire departments. The fire crept into the southwest border of the campus. There are no reports of structures at the academy being burned.

Steve Cox, an aide to Mayor Steve Bach, said Wednesday morning that the blaze has consumed dozens of houses. A more precise figure wasn’t available because of the intensity of the fire.

The White House issued a statement Wednesday in which President Obama is planning to visit Colorado on Friday to survey the damage. “The President reiterated his administration’s focus, through the US Forest Service as well as the Department of Interior and FEMA, on continuing to bring all resources to bear to assist local responders in Colorado and a number of Western States currently being impacted by fires,” said the statement.

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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, which is 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.”

Flames crested a ridge above the scenic, 28-square-mile Air Force Academy campus on Tuesday, and the school told more than 2,200 residents to evacuate 600 households in one housing area.

By Wednesday, the smoke appeared farther away, said Lt. Col. John Bryan, an academy spokesman.

It wasn’t immediately clear how close the fire was to the academy’s signature building, the aluminum, glass and steel Cadet Chapel. The chapel dorms, classrooms and other central buildings are clustered in the northwest quadrant of the 28-square-mile campus.

More than 1,000 incoming freshman are planned to report to the academy as scheduled on Thursday, but the day’s events have been moved to a campus building farther from the fire, Bryan said.

About 1,500 other cadets who are attending summer classes would take shelter off campus with civilian or military families if the threat worsens, Bryan said.The academy has its own fire department, which trains extensively for threats such as this, Bryan said.

“We’re doing everything we can and obviously taking the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe,” he said.

CBS affiliate KKTV Colorado Springs reports that at a press conference held Wednesday, Forest Supervisor Jerri Marr said it was a tough day for everyone, “But we’ve had way more successes than we have failures.”

Colorado Springs Fire Chief Richard Brown called the blaze ” A firestorm of epic proportions.”

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.

Jill Owosko spent four years building a home in Boulder, specially designed for her respiratory problems. She moved in just last week but had to evacuate Tuesday, reports Rick Sallinger, a correspondent for CBS 4 in Denver.

“Every day I say I should pack a bag and have it ready [because] I have medicine and oxygen and stuff I need. And I didn’t. There’s the lesson,” Owosko said.

Thunderstorms were expected near the blaze in the afternoon. Incident commander Rich Harvey said 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.

Published Date: Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 | 10:27 AM

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