DENVER—Colorado’s hellacious wildfire season worsened Tuesday with the explosion of the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs and the out-of-the-blue eruption of another fast-moving blaze, this one near Boulder.
Strong winds moving as fast as 65 miles per hour pushed the Waldo Canyon fire across two lines of containment and forced firefighters to issue mandatory evacuation orders Tuesday afternoon for 32,000 homes. The U.S. Air Force Academy on the south side of Colorado Springs was hit with an evacuation order before nightfall, while the Garden of the Gods Park and other recreation areas were closed.
The fast-moving inferno forced firefighters to retreat as the flames consumed an estimated 6,500 acres, consuming block after block of homes in northwest Colorado Springs, filling the sky with black plumes of smoke, and spraying ash on Interstate 25.
Gov. John Hickenlooper made an emergency visit by helicopter to the command center after 9 p.m., telling El Paso County officials that “the entire state is behind you.”
“Obviously when you get weather like we’ve just seen—it’s dry, it’s hot and then you get those winds,” said Hickenlooper. “We have the greatest firefighters in the world, but when you get those winds there’s nothing you can do.”
Watching the devastation from his helicopter, Hickenlooper said it was “like looking at a military invasion.”
“This is one of the worst fire seasons we’ve seen in Colorado, and if I could make executive order for it to rain, I’d do it tomorrow. I’d do it right now,” said Hickenlooper.
He said he spoke Tuesday with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. “We have all the support of the U.S. government, we have all the support of the state of Colorado, and we want to make sure that everybody down here knows that,” said Hickenlooper.
Earlier Tuesday, the governor visited the High Park fire near Fort Collins, which is now 65% contained after destroying 136 square miles of forest and 257 homes, and causing one death. The wildfire, started June 9 by lightning, is considered the second-largest in state history.
Meanwhile, lightning strikes ignited a wildfire Tuesday afternoon west of Boulder, forcing the evacuation of 26 homes and creating a smoky haze that could be seen in Denver. Dubbed the Flagstaff fire, the blaze had consumed more than 200 acres at press time and resulted in 2,300 pre-evacuation orders south of the Flatirons.
Firefighters were working to keep the flames on the ridge and stop it from running down into Boulder. About 200 firefighters were combating the Flagstaff fire while another 800 were assigned to the Waldo Canyon blaze.
The Red Cross had set up four shelters for Waldo Canyon evacuees, while Colorado Springs churches and Focus on the Family were also welcoming families forced to abandon their homes.
The Waldo Canyon, High Park and Flagstaff fires are the worst of 14 active wildfires burning Tuesday in what is being described as one of the worst wildfire seasons in Colorado history. Most of those were smaller blazes, such as the Little Sand fire near Pagosa Springs, and several were considered 100% contained.
High temperatures—Denver recorded it second straight day of 105-degree temperatures—combined with high winds and dry forests combined to overwhelm firefighters combating the Waldo Canyon blaze, even with four C-130 military tankers deluging the flames with red fire retardant.
The Waldo Canyon fire started June 23 in the Pike National Forest, and appeared to be manageable until high winds from the West caused it to race down Queens Canyon and toward the Cascade and Cedar Heights subdivisions.
Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach said he was grateful for the governor’s visit.
“It’s been a long, hard day for the city, and it means so much to us that you’ve taken the time to come down here,” Bach told the governor at the press conference.
The governor urged residents of Colorado Springs to remain optimistic and not give up hope.
“We’re going to rebuild,” said Hickenlooper. “This is no different than any natural disaster—you never quit and you just keep pushing back.”