Tens of thousands flee blazes

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Fire crews fought to save the U.S. Air Force Academy, and residents begged for information on the fate of their homes Wednesday after a night of terror sent thousands fleeing a wildfire.

More than 30,000 have been displaced, including thousands who frantically packed up belongings Tuesday night after it barreled into neighborhoods in the foothills west and north of Colorado Springs. With flames looming overhead, they clogged roads shrouded in smoke and flying embers, their fear punctuated by explosions that signaled another house had been claimed.

"The sky was red, the wind was blowing really fast, and there were embers falling from the sky," said Simone Covey, a 26-year-old mother of three who fled an apartment near Garden of the Gods park and was staying at a shelter. "I didn't really have time to think about it. I was just trying to keep my kids calm."

Wilma Juachon sat under a tree at an evacuation center, wearing a mask to block the smoke. A tourist from California, she was evacuated last week from a fire near Rocky Mountain National Park and, now, from her Colorado Springs hotel.

"I said I hope it never happens again, and guess what?" Juachon said.

Constantly shifting winds challenged firefighters trying to contain the 24-square-mile Waldo Canyon blaze and extinguish hot spots inside the city's western suburbs.

The National Weather Service reported 60 mph winds and lightning above the fire Wednesday afternoon.

"It won't stay in the same place," incident commander Rich Harvey said.

Some 3,000 more people were evacuated to the west of the fire, Teller County authorities said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, White House officials said President Barack Obama will tour fire-stricken areas of Colorado on Friday and thank firefighters battling some of the worst fires to hit the American West in decades.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said he expected the president might sign a disaster declaration that would allow for more federal aid.

The full scope of the fire remained unknown. So intense were the flames and so thick the smoke that rescue workers weren't able to tell residents which structures were destroyed and which ones were still standing.

Steve Cox, a spokesman for Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach, reported that at least dozens of homes had been consumed, but he had no more precise figure.

Authorities were too busy Wednesday struggling to save homes in near-zero visibility to count how many had been destroyed .

Crews also were battling a deadly and destructive wildfire in northern Colorado and another that flared Tuesday night near Boulder.

FBI spokesman Dave Joly said federal investigators are working with local and state law enforcement to determine whether any of Colorado's fires were set or resulted from criminal activity.

Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown said his personnel saved many homes in the midst of the firestorm. The strategy was protecting houses adjacent to those in flames to prevent a domino effect and then racing to the next suburban hot spot, a technique he called "triage."

Federal firefighters worked with U.S. Army bulldozer crews from nearby Fort Carson to create perimeter lines.

The Waldo Canyon Fire burned about 10 acres along the southwest boundary of the Air Force Academy campus. No injuries or damage to structures, including the iconic Cadet Chapel, were reported. With 90 firefighters battling the flames, the academy's superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, said 1,500 cadets taking summer classes and more than 1,000 freshmen arriving Thursday will be safe .

Four firefighting bulldozers were in a convoy heading into the academy Wednesday evening.

The Red Cross struggled to accommodate victims at its shelters, with space enough for perhaps 2,500 people. Most evacuees were staying with family and friends.

Colorado wasn't the only Western state affected by fires .

Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, said with several fires burning, there is competition for firefighting resources, but "we're still at a point where we've got lots of available assets to mix and match on individual incidents."

The agency has been working to get equipment where it's needed most, he said. Four military C-130 tankers, which each can carry up to 3,000 gallons of water, are positioned to cover the blazes burning near Colorado Springs and Fort Collins and the entire Front Range if another fire were to break out, he said.

At total of 18 air tankers were assigned to wildfires across the region.

Overall, there have been fewer fires and less acreage burned for the first six months of this year than for the same period in the previous six years. Some states are seeing fires earlier this year, but Harbour said resources are far from being exhausted.

"With over 10,000 firefighters in the Forest Service and the ability to get over 700 aircraft of all types, we're feeling cautiously confident when you look at the season as a whole," he said.

Among the fires elsewhere in the West was a central Utah wildfire that has destroyed at least 56 structures, mainly homes, and continues to burn with little containment.

Officials expected the damage estimate to rise considerably as they continue their assessment of the fire-ravaged area between Fountain Green and Fairview and north across the Utah County line. Authorities were 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.

Wildfires have torched more than 128,000 acres and burned dozens of homes in southeastern Montana spread farther Wednesday, with additional evacuations ordered after a blaze south of Roundup jumped a perimeter line built by firefighters.

The growing Dahl Fire, which has burned more than 60 homes, forced an unknown number of residents to leave their homes near its southern flank, on top of an estimated 600 people evacuated the day before.

"That's one of the most dangerous fires in the history of Montana," Gov. Brian Schweitzer said.

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.

RECORD HEAT across the WEST and beyond
Feeling hot? It's not a mirage. Across the United States, hundreds of heat records have fallen in the past week from the wildfire-consumed Rocky Mountains to the bacon-fried sidewalks of Oklahoma.
In the past week, 1,011 records have been broken around the country, including 251 new daily high temperature records on Tuesday.
Those numbers might seem big, but they're hard to put into context. The National Climatic Data Center has been tracking the daily numbers broken for a little more than a year only, said Derek Arndt, head of climate monitoring at the center.
Still, it's impressive, given that records usually aren't broken until the scorching months of July and August.
"Any time you're breaking all-time records in mid- to late June, that's a healthy heat wave," Arndt said.
If forecasts hold, more records could fall in the coming days in the central and western parts of the country, places accustomed to sweating out the summer.
The current U.S. heat wave "is bad now by our current definition of bad," said University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver, but "our definition of bad changes. What we see now will be far more common in the years ahead."
No matter where you are, the objective is the same: Stay cool.
Soaring temperatures and whipping winds are piling on those battling blazes raging across the Rocky Mountains.
U.S. Forest Service firefighter Owen Johnson had to work overnight and avoided the hot daytime temperatures in the region, which toppled records in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. On Tuesday, Colorado Springs reached 101 degrees, and Miles City in eastern Montana soared to 111 degrees, the highest ever recorded in that area.
A call came in after Johnson's regular shift Monday in the Helena National Forest in Montana. A wildfire was racing through the Scratchgravel Hills, threatening at least 200 homes. But firefighters had to wait to pose a direct attack until midnight, when the temperatures cooled and the wind died down.
On Tuesday morning, Johnson figured he had worked more than 24 hours and probably wouldn't quit until the sun went down. He gave a tired shrug when asked to compare this fire with others in his 13-year career.
"Every fire's different. They all pose their own risks and challenges."
On Kansas prairie, the searing mix of sun and triple-digit heat is a recipe for agricultural disaster.
Some residents have taken to praying for rain and cooler temperatures in this sparsely populated western part of the state. Menlo farmer Brian Baalman can testify to that.
"Everybody is just sick of it. They just wish we would get a good rain," he said. "It has become a point to pray for it at church on Sunday, for sure."
Temperatures in the area have hovered around 111 degrees or higher for the past four days, and nine cities in western Kansas broke records on Tuesday.
Only in the earliest morning hours do hardy farmers dart out to ensure their livestock's water troughs are filled and their irrigation wells are quenching parched crops. They quickly return to cooler locales.
In Oklahoma, Aaron Anderson and his 4-year-old son bypassed the proverbial cooked egg on Tuesday, opting instead to fry bacon on their driveway in Coweta.
Anderson's thermometer read 105 degrees around 4:30 p.m., about the same time his son, Aaron Paul, said it felt like his feet were cooking.
Anderson preheated the skillet for 10 minutes in the sun, and it took an hour for the meat to fully cook.
And, yes, they ate it.
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