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Wildfire Prompts Some Evacuations At AF Academy

9:42 AM, Jun 27, 2012   |    comments
The Waldo Canyon fire burns an entire neighborhood in near the foothills of Colorado Springs, Colo. June 26, 2012 (The Denver Post via AP)
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WOODLAND PARK, Colo. (AP) - Air Force Academy officials were evacuating more than 2,100 residents from the school's grounds Tuesday night, after 65 mph gusts pushed a wildfire onto homes in northwest Colorado Springs in triple-digit temperatures.

El Paso County sheriff's officials have ordered about 32,000 residents to leave, and the Air Force Academy evacuated more than 600 households with more than 2,100 residents. An area of the 28-square-mile campus that houses cadets wasn't immediately evacuated. A new class of 1,045 cadets is scheduled to report Thursday.

Fire information officer Greg Heule said earlier Tuesday that the fire was less than five miles from the southwest corner of the academy's campus.

The fire was burning several homes Tuesday night after jumping containment lines. Colorado Springs Fire Chief Richard Brown said, however, that "many, many homes" were saved.

Brown called it a fire "of epic proportions."

"If there was an executive order for rain, we'd sign it immediately, but what we can do now is provide support and resources to communities that are most at risk," Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a written statement.

After flying over the fire late Tuesday, he told reporters: "It was like looking at the worst movie set you could imagine. It's almost surreal. You look at that, and it's like nothing I've seen before."

To the north in Boulder County, officials were evacuating 26 households due to a new wildfire Tuesday afternoon but said no structures were immediately threatened. They also sent nearly 2,500 pre-evacuation notices affecting an unknown number of residents. The fire started southwest of Boulder after a storm with lightning but little rain moved through the area, county officials said.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research was voluntarily evacuating, and nearby residents were warned to be ready to leave if necessary, Boulder County officials said.

At a fire in northern Colorado, authorities updated the number of homes destroyed to 257 after they found nine others that hadn't been counted earlier. They said no additional homes had burned.

The blazes were among at least a half-dozen across the state amid dry conditions and 100-degree temperatures.

The fire west of Colorado Springs was burning on more than 9 square miles.

"We're packed and ready to go in case we're told that we need to go, but we won't go unless we actually have to," said Roxanne Roberts, who lives between Crystola and Woodland Park. "So, we're kind of prepared. We just don't know where we'll go."

The fire, which started Saturday, was 5 percent contained. The cause was under investigation.

Two specially equipped Air Force C-130 planes helped fight the fire Monday. A third is expected Tuesday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday that it has authorized federal funds to help defray costs of fighting that fire and another fire in southwest Colorado that threatened 105 homes.

Evacuated resident Allen Mathews stood on a ridge in north Colorado Springs, watching as the fire appeared to burn in a nearby subdivision Tuesday night. He looked at his neighborhood beneath a ridge as flames crept over the top. He was trying to determine whether the flickering lights were emergency vehicles or fire.

"I've never seen anything short of war like it," said Mathews, who served in the Air Force from 1974 to 1994.

As Mathews watched the flames, they appeared to calm down but then all of a sudden there would be a burst of fire that seemed to consume an entire ridge.

"God, look at that," Mathews said. "There can't be a way to fight it."

Some hiking trails leading west from the Air Force Academy campus have been closed, Tech Sgt. Raymond Hoy said. Sports camps and July 4 events on base were canceled due to the fire.

Sightings of deer and bear on campus have increased since Monday, Hoy said, probably because the animals are fleeing the fire.

Some gas stations in Woodland Park, northwest of the fire, ran out of gasoline Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the fire 15 miles west of Fort Collins grew to about 136 square miles and was 65 percent contained. The fire killed one person. The 257 homes destroyed is a state record for a single fire.

Lightning started the fire June 9.

Incident commander Beth Lund said she was optimistic about holding and extending fire lines despite hot, dry weather.

Temperatures exceeded 100 degrees Tuesday in Denver and at least 11 other locations, including the northeastern Colorado town of Wray, which hit 108, the National Weather Service said.

It was the fifth consecutive day with temperatures of 100 degrees or higher in Denver, tying a record set in 2005 and 1989. On Tuesday, Denver hit 105 degrees, tying the record high for Denver.

The Last Chance grass fire on Colorado's eastern plains was fully contained after destroying four homes, 10 outbuildings and a county bridge. Located about 60 miles east of Denver, the fire was started by sparks from a tire blowout, Washington County Sheriff Larry Kuntz said.

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Associated Press writer Rema Rahman in Denver contributed to this report.

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