COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Marking the worst fire season in Colorado history, three major blazes are burning uncontrolled throughout the Rocky Mountain state, destroying hundreds of homes, prompting mass evacuations in Colorado Springs and threatening the city of Boulder 100 miles away.
For weeks, Colorado has been in a state of siege as the mammoth High Park Fire raged unhindered in mountain wilderness, destroying 257 rural homesteads and cabins, while residents of cities and suburbs to the east held their collective breaths and prayed that the flames would not reach them.
(PHOTO: A strong wind blows the leaves of a pine tree, as smoke from the Waldo Canyon fire shrouds the mountains Wednesday, June 27, 2012, near Colorado Springs, Colorado.)
Experts are warning fire-weary Coloradans that this could be the new route for their state — that the blazes could rage all summer-long until the arrival of the autumn rains.
On Wednesday, the Waldo Canyon Fire, named for a popular hiking area west of the state’s second-largest city, continued to burn unchecked, prompting the evacuation of 32,000 people in the metropolitan area of 600,000, including the nation’s Air Force Academy.
The fire, which ignited Saturday, exploded late Tuesday, doubling in size in just hours. Propelled by winds blowing 60 mph, the blaze jumped barriers to scourge neighborhoods, destroying dozens of homes, as well as such landmarks the historic Flying W Ranch, a popular tourist attraction that drew as many as 1,000 people a night for music and western-style dining.
Susan Joy Paul had stood her ground inside the Colorado Springs home where she had raised her now-grown children, until she heard the panic in a friend’s voice on the phone. With the main highways clogged with 20,000 evacuees, she fled along back roads, finally reaching a vantage point where she could survey her Shadow Valley neighborhood.
“It looked like big red torches going up,” she said. “That’s when it hit me: Those are houses.”
Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, said this year is the culmination of nearly a decade of record fire seasons. “Definitely we’re having a changing climate,” he said, adding that less snowfall in Colorado last winter brought the fire season to the state more than a month early.
“This significantly exceeds what we saw 10, 20, 30 years ago,” said Tidwell, a former firefighter. He said the Colorado fires are especially dangerous because they are so erratic, adding that large fires can create their own weather patterns, rendering traditional weather forecasts unreliable.
In the Boulder area, residents this summer have learned to keep a wary eye on the sky, watching not only the plume of smoke rising from the outskirts of town but also the slurry bombers roaring overhead to dump their loads.
By Wednesday, the fire just a mile and half from town, and authorities had evacuated 28 households and warned another 2,500 households to be ready to flee.
Meanwhile, officials worry about the fatigue of thousands of firefighters on the line. In northern Colorado, where the 136-square-mile High Park Fire has already destroyed hundreds of homes and killed one woman, fire managers offered to shift to Boulder and Colorado Springs to join the fights there. President Barack Obama planned to visit the state’s fire zones on Friday to thank firefighters.
Colorado’s climate and vegetation have the capacity to create enormous fires. In the summer of 2002 the state’s largest-ever fire thwarted efforts to control it and marched ominously toward Denver with a fire front 20 miles long and 14 miles wide.
Meteorologists said the 15,000-foot smoke plume from the Hayman Fire spawned nightly thunderstorms in neighboring states and triggered two tornadoes that spun through Kansas. Ultimately the Hayman Fire destroyed 133 homes, forced the evacuation of more than 5,300 people and cost $4 million.
The newest blazes have sent Coloradans into a frenzied pitch of fire fear-and-loathing. Even outside the burn area, days of record-breaking, triple-digit heat and strong winds have created a dry-as-dust landscape.
For residents of this state where exercise is a way of life, the unpredictable nature of the fires has hot-wired nerves. People watch as the flames destroy groups of houses but leave one untouched. Children call their parents — and vice versa — each time the fire changes direction, or someone spots lightning strike.
Through Tweets and dramatic fire pictures posted on social media sites, uneasy residents have reached out to friends and family — and anyone else who will listen to their stories of being in the path of unpredictable fires. Others talk about the panic they feel every time they see a fire truck hurry down the road.
“Any time I see or hear a fire truck race by our house, my chest and stomach get tight, especially if there has been recent lightning,” said Roxanne Hawn, who lives just outside Denver, miles from the blaze. “It’s like being afraid of heights — the clenching inside feels the same.”
On Tuesday Felice Vigil awoke in the residential section of the Air Force Academy unable to breathe. Even though the fire was nearby she had felt reassured she and her family were safe since they were on a military installation.
But when she looked outside the smoke swirling through her yard was so thick she said it looked like solid object, waist-high. “It was like something out of a Freddy Krueger movie,” the mother of three said on Wednesday.
By late afternoon a sudden burst of wind upended her patio furniture. The fire was racing toward the Academy as military police rolled through the streets telling everyone to get out.
“I tried to be calm for my kids,” she said, standing outside a YMCA evacuation shelter, “but inside I was terrified, completely panicked.” With no idea if her house she survived she is now staying with family. She took her kids to the shelter so they could swim and get their minds off what they had seen.
There is little doubt this fire will stay with them, though. Eight-year-old Gabe Vigil proudly held up a chalk drawing of a perfect house. “This is what I hope our house still looks like,” he said.
Susan Joy Paul symbolizes Colorado’s angst of just not knowing. She had kept her eye on the Waldo Canyon fire since it started on Saturday.
On Tuesday, a friend told her the fire had jumped a nearby ridge, that the massive cloud of billowing smoke was heading her way. Already, daytime had turned to night as smoke blocked the sun. Giant flakes of ash — some as wide as her hand — swirled in her front yard.
She heard an explosion, maybe a generator, and then the lights and TV went out. “This is not right. We shouldn’t be here,” she told her roommate. “I feel like we’re in hell.”
Two police squad cars drove down the street, bullhorns blaring for everyone to evacuate. “We had no time.” She threw her laptop, her notes for the book she is writing, some food, pictures of her kids and a backpack into her compact car and started driving. “It was so confusing. Black ash was flying around like bats. At every corner there were cops yelling at me, waving me in different directions.”
On Wednesday, Paul said she can almost forget about the nightmare that unfolded the night before. Almost, but not quite. “I need to cry,” she said, her voice teetering on despair. “I need to but can’t. Not yet. Not until I know.”
Paul was camped at a local library, trying to get some work done, fearing for the worst, praying that life as she knew it wasn’t now over.
“I want to see it, but I don’t,” she said of her home. “I want to see it like it was, but I know that’s not going to happen.”