Colorado wildfire: 32,000 people evacuated in Waldo Canyon fire
June 26, 2012
The Waldo Canyon fire exploded Tuesday afternoon, forcing thousands of people to evacuate as smoke covered the northwest part of the city.
Houses were engulfed in flames as evening arrived. The historic Flying W Ranch, west of town, confirmed on its website that the popular site for chuck wagon outings had “burned to the ground.”
The latest evacuations were for most of northwest Colorado Springs, including Pinon Valley, Rockrimmon and Woodmen valley, home to thousands of residents. The Pine Valley housing area south of the Air Force Academy was evacuated and, about 7:30 p.m., the academy itself was ordered evacuated.
Showers of ash fell as traffic gridlocked on Interstate 25 and all major eastbound roadways, clogged full of refugees and fire equipment. Witnesses flooded the internet on Twitter, describing the scene as “an apocalypse” and “terrifying” and posting photos of the city wrapped in a sinister orange and black cloud.
All traffic was eastbound-only on Garden of The Gods Road and Woodmen Road as businesses and motels shut down and residents fled. Frantic people who begged to be allowed to return, saying they relatives at homes, were being turned back by police.
The Colorado Springs Fire Department urged people to use their cell phones for emergencies only while the Sheriff’s Office announced that utilities were being cut off in the northwest part of town.
At 7:30 p.m., southbound I-25 had been closed down at Interquest Parkway to facilitate the evacuation at Pine Valley and the Air Force Academy.
The weather was no help, as the temperature in Colorado Springs hit 101 degrees, an all-time record for the city.
Fire officials said Tuesday morning the Waldo Canyon Fire is now estimated to be 5,168 acres with 5 percent containment.
“If I told you an acreage right now, it would be wrong in about 10 minutes. It is getting bigger,” incident commander Steve Harvey, said during a 4 p.m. update, shortly before the fire’s sudden leap.
A new shelter for evacuated people was being opened at the Southeast YMCA Family Center, 2190 Jet Wing Drive.
U.S. 24 was closed in both directions between Cave of the Winds and Crystola. Garden of the Gods park and the Pikes Peak Highway and cog railroad were also closed.
The fire started in the Pike National Forest about noon on June 23. More than 600 personnel were fighting the blaze, which took a run late Monday toward Palmer Reservoir. Aircraft are being used to protect Rampart Range Road.
Earlier Tuesday, crews had been working to keep the fire out of Queens Canyon and protect homes in the Cedar Heights and Cascade communities, as well as Eagle Lake Camp.
Harvey said he is hopeful crews will make progress Tuesday, but the weather makes firefighting difficult.
“It has the potential, despite our best efforts, to make a run like it did yesterday,” he said.
Fuels are at record dryness, about the same level seen during the 2002 Hayman Fire, the state’s largest.
Harvey added: We’re “trying to put the right people in the right place.”
Residents in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood thought they’d be allowed back home for at 30 minutes today, but when the blaze blew up this morning, escorted visits were cancelled. The number of cars coming out of the neighborhood is getting small.
Malina Lieven, who has lived in the neighborhood for three years, said she and her husband were in Wyoming when they heard about the fire. They stayed an extra day because of it.
On Monday her husband was able to get in the house to grab some clothes and a few sentimental wedding items. She missed her chance today.
“They’re not letting me in,” she said as she sat in her car outside of the roadblock after talking to police who were keeping people out. “You just feel helpless. Completely helpless. All I need is five minutes. Just give me five minutes.”
Lieven said another challenge is being away from her neighbors.
“It’s really hard,” she said. “We’re really close with our neighbors. They are like our family and we haven’t seen them since Friday.”