COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Fire crews fought to protect the U.S. Air Force Academy and residents begged for information on the fate of their homes Wednesday as a huge wildfire raged in the foothills of Colorado's second-largest city.
More than 30,000 have been displaced by the fire, including thousands who frantically packed up belongings Tuesday night after it barreled into neighborhoods west and north of the 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.
"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."
Constantly shifting winds challenged firefighters trying to contain the 28-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 on Wednesday afternoon.
"It won't stay in the same place," said incident commander Rich Harvey.
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.
Four firefighting bulldozers were in a convoy heading into the academy Wednesday evening.
With 90 firefighters battling the flames, the Academy superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, insisted that 1,500 cadets taking summer classes and more than 1,000 freshmen arriving today will be safe — with campus ceremonies or housing to be moved away from the fire-hit area or off-campus.
Flames crested a ridge above the campus Tuesday, and the school told more than 2,200 residents to evacuate 600 households in one housing area.
The White House 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. City police Chief Richard Carey insisted that Obama's visit to Colorado, considered a key battleground state in the presidential election, would not tax Carey's already-strained police force. Gov. John Hickenlooper said he expected the president might sign a disaster declaration.
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.
Indeed, authorities were too busy Wednesday struggling to save homes in near-zero visibility to count how many had been destroyed in what is the latest test for a drought-parched and tinder-dry state. 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 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.