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 of people fleeing a raging Colorado Springs wildfire.
More than 30,000 have been displaced by the fire, including thousands who frantically packed up belongings Tuesday night after it barreled into neighborhoods in the foothills west and north of Colorado’s second-largest city.
With flames looming overhead, they clogged roads shrouded in smoke and flying embers, their fear punctuated by explosions of bright orange flame that signaled yet another house had been claimed.
About 3,000 more people were evacuated to the west of the fire, Teller County authorities said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the White House said President 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 24-square-mile 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.
Indeed, authorities were too busy Wednesday struggling to save homes in near-zero visibility to count how many had been destroyed.
FBI spokesman Dave Joly said federal investigators are working closely with local and state law enforcement to determine if any of Colorado’s fires were deliberately set or resulted from criminal activity. He did not elaborate.
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, Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould insisted that 1,500 cadets taking summer classes and more than 1,000 freshmen arriving Thursday will be safe – with campus ceremonies or housing to be moved away from the fire-hit area or off-campus if needed.
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.
Several other states throughout the parched West were affected by fires.
Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, said that 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.