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.