The Heat Is Online

US Wildfires Scorch a Record 1.3 Million Acres

More flee as Colorado fire sends 2-mile wall of flame down ridge

32,000 people evacuated in Colorado Springs area earlier; Obama to visit Friday, June 27, 2012

Residents of one community and part of another outside Colorado Springs, Colo., were evacuating Wednesday as a "monster" fire there more than doubled in size from Tuesday and a two-mile-wide wall of flame was burning down the backside of a ridge.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for the town of Crystola and part of Woodland Park after more than 32,000 people had to flee on Tuesday. How many new evacuees were moving out was not immediately available.

Fire crews had expected more weather trouble on Wednesday and by early afternoon scanner traffic confirmed the fire was still in full force.

The fire is moving down a ridge toward Teller County, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported, citing communications from an emergency services scanner. "It's huge," said the voice over the scanner. "I would estimate two-three miles in width."

"As of right now I cannot hold this hill," was another exchange, referring to the burning Blodgett Peak near the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Heavy smoke made for unhealthy air in and around the city. After jumping fire lines Tuesday, the towering blaze has now burned more than 24 square miles and an undetermined number of homes.

While crews should get a break from the heat, a forecast for thunderstorms could mean unpredictable winds.

"We expect further trouble from the weather today," incident commander Rich Harvey said at a press briefing. "We do expect all of our lines to be challenged today."

Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown called the Waldo Canyon Fire a "monster event" that is "not even remotely close to being contained." The cause of the fire is under investigation.

The White House, meanwhile, said President Barack Obama would tour the area on Friday to offer his support.

Tuesday night, the community of Mountain Shadows, northwest of Colorado Springs, appeared to be enveloped in an orange glow.
People were "freaking out" as they fled Tuesday night, local resident Kathleen Tillman told the Denver Post. "You are driving through smoke. It is completely pitch black, and there is tons of ash dropping on the road."

"This is a fire of epic proportions," Brown said at a briefing Tuesday night.

"It was like looking at the worst movie set you could imagine," Gov. John Hickenlooper added after flying over the fire. "It's almost surreal. You look at that, and it's like nothing I've seen before."

Brown insisted that "many, many homes" were saved by firefighters.

Hickenlooper told anxious residents that "we have all the support of the U.S. government. We have all the support of the state of Colorado. And we want everybody here to know that."

He emphasized that Colorado was open to tourism, saying various fires had affected just a half-percent of all public lands and perhaps 400 of 10,000 campground sites.

Among the evacuees were cadets and staff living in one section of the sprawling U.S. Air Force Academy. Flames crested a ridge high above the campus on Tuesday, forcing more than 2,100 residents there to flee.

A new class of 1,045 cadets will still check in on Thursday but at a different section of the campus. The academy said the entire campus would be closed Wednesday to all visitors and non-essential staff.

Colorado is battling 12 large fires, its worst fire season in history, and other states across the West are being taxed as well.
To the north in Boulder County, 26 homes were evacuated Tuesday when lightning sparked a wildfire. No structures were immediately threatened, but the National Center for Atmospheric Research closed as a precaution.

The state's largest blaze is the 136-square-mile High Park Fire, which has destroyed 257 homes and killed one woman. That fire was triggered by lightning on June 9 and is nearly contained.

Most of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have seen red flag warnings in recent days, meaning extreme fire danger.

Much of the U.S. is seeing "a super-heated spike on top of a decades-long warming trend," Derek Arndt, head of climate monitoring at the National Climatic Data Center, told the Associated Press.

Although the fire season got off to an early start in the West, the number of fires and acreage burned nationwide is still below the 10-year average for this time of year.

Elsewhere in the West:
  • In Utah, a woman was found dead Tuesday in a blaze that has consumed several dozen homes. Her body was found during a damage assessment of the 60-square-mile Wood Hollow Fire near Indianola. The fire was 15 percent contained and evacuations were issued in Fairview, a town of about 1,100 residents.
  • In New Mexico, a fire that burned nearly 70 square miles west of Ruidoso was 90 percent contained, with many residents allowed to return home.
  • In Montana, a wildfire just 2 miles north of Helena destroyed four homes and forced people out of 200 homes. Gov. Brian Schweitzer issued a state of emergency for four counties.
  • In Wyoming, a wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest grew from about 300 acres to 2,000 acres Tuesday, marking the first major wildfire of the season there.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Colorado Wildfires 2012: Record Heat Hampers Efforts To Fight Wildfires

The Associated Press, June 26, 2012

MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo. -- Searing, record-setting heat in the interior West didn't loosen its grip on firefighters struggling to contain blazes in Colorado, Utah and other Rocky Mountain states.

Colorado has endured nearly a week of 100-plus degree days and low humidity, sapping moisture from timber and grass, creating a devastating formula for volatile wildfires across the state and punishing conditions for firefighters.

"When it's that hot, it just dries the fuels even more. That can make the fuels explosive," said Steve Segin, a fire spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Much of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado are under a red flag warning, meaning conditions are hot, dry and ripe for fires.

For the fourth straight day, Denver cleared 100 degrees and reached a record high temperature of 105 Monday. Other areas in the state have also been topping 100 degrees, including northern Colorado where the state's second largest wildfire in history is burning.

And the scorching heat doesn't appear to be letting up soon. Temperatures across Colorado are expected to clear 100 degrees again on Tuesday. Segin said such prolonged heat is "extremely taxing" physically on firefighters, who are working long days and carrying heavy gear.

The wildfires are also posing a threat to tourism.

Several large wildfires across the West have placed some tourist destinations from Montana to New Mexico in danger just at the height of midsummer family road-trip season, putting cherished Western landscapes at risk along with hordes of vacationers.

In Colorado, the $5 billion tourism industry is on edge as images of smoke-choked Pikes Peak and flaming vacation cabins near Rocky Mountain National Park threaten to scare away summer tourists. Flames from the wildfire burning near Colorado Springs could be seen from downtown early Tuesday, the Gazette reported.

In central Utah, a wildfire in an area dotted with vacation cabins was burning an estimated 58 square miles and threatening about 300 homes. Firefighters had that blaze at 10 percent containment Monday. The Sanpete County Sheriff's office said that as many as 30 structures may have been lost.

And in New Mexico, firefighters Monday were mopping up a small wildfire that threatened one of that state's top tourist attractions, El Santuario de Chimayo, a 19th century church north of Santa Fe. The church draws some 300,000 visitors a year and appeared to be out of danger Monday.

With the nation's privately owned fleet of heavy air tankers already in use or unavailable, U.S. Forest Chief Tom Tidwell said his agency had to call on C-130 military tankers to help. The order came as new fires started in Colorado, Utah, Alaska and Arkansas. In all, more than 1.3 million acres across the U.S. have been charred this year.

Tidwell told The Associated Press in a phone interview Monday that about half of the nation's personnel who are usually assigned to large fires are working in Colorado right now.

"It's just because it's so dry," Tidwell said. "Not unlike New Mexico – they saw very low snowpack, especially in that lower country. Hot, dry winds with dry fuels, you get the ignition, and this is what we see."

Even as some evacuated residents in Colorado were allowed to return home, tourists streamed out of some of Colorado's most popular summer sights.

"They don't want to come back where it is smoky and uncomfortable, so they move on," said Chris Champlin, operator of the Pikes Peak RV Park, which is usually packed ahead of the July 4 holiday.

The fire that emptied Champlin's RV park burned out of control at more than 5 square miles Monday, with smoke at times obscuring Pikes Peak.

In Manitou Springs, a tourist town at the base of Pikes Peak, the Blue Skies Inn was back open for business Monday, a day after guests were roused and told to evacuate. But manager Mike Dutcher worried that officials pleading for firefighting help could spook visitors.

"Tourism is a big business in Colorado, and if you hyperventilate when CNN shows up, it hurts a lot of people," Dutcher said.

The head of the state's tourism office said it's too soon to know how the fires will affect the number of summer tourists. But Al White, director of the Colorado Tourism Office, insisted, "The active fires represent a very, very small piece of Colorado."

Colorado is having its worst fire season since the drought-stricken year of 2002. In June of that year, wildfires charring tens of thousands of acres near the resort towns of Glenwood Springs and Durango and in Pike National Forest near Denver prompted then-Gov. Bill Owens to proclaim that it looked as if "all of Colorado is burning today."

In northern Colorado, authorities announced that the High Park Fire had destroyed 248 homes, up from 191. That fire has killed one woman and scorched more than 130 square miles and was just 55 percent contained Monday. It's the second largest wildfire in state history.

Elsewhere across the West:

_ An Alaska wildfire between Mount McKinley and town of Anderson grew to more than 30 square miles Monday. No homes were threatened.

_ Despite dry, hot conditions, firefighters battling a fire that consumed nearly 70 square miles west of Ruidoso, N.M., was 90 percent contained, with many residents allowed to return home.

_ A wildfire in Tonto National Forest near Young, Ariz., was 65 percent contained Monday as winds slowed to about 3 mph.

_ Authorities in southwestern Montana ordered residential evacuations in a small community threatened by one of two wildfires. The blazes were burning in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

Deadly Colorado wildfire surpasses 100-square-mile mark

Reuters, June 22, 2012

(Reuters) - A deadly, stubborn wildfire that ranks as the most destructive on record for Colorado has scorched more than 100 square miles (259 square km) of rugged mountain terrain northwest of Denver, but a cool snap on Wednesday gave fire crews a chance to take the offensive.

The so-called High Park Fire already is blamed for one death and has consumed 189 homes in the 12 days since it was ignited by lightning at the edge of the Roosevelt National Forest, and authorities say they expect property losses to climb once more damage assessments are made.

As of Wednesday, an estimated 1,000 homes remained evacuated on the western outskirts of Fort Collins, a city of more 140,000 people that lies adjacent to the national forest about 55 miles north of Denver, according to Larimer County Sheriff's spokesman John Schulz.

The only casualty reported from the fire so far was a 62-year-old grandmother whose body was found last week in the ashes of a cabin where she lived alone. She was the fourth person to die in a Colorado wildfire this year.

The High Park blaze grew in size by several thousand acres overnight and early Wednesday, extending to almost 66,000 acres, or nearly 103 square miles (266 square km).

But with air temperatures falling and expected to remain relatively cool for the next two days, fire managers plan to go on the attack.
"Today we're going to be aggressive," incident commander Bill Hahnenberg said. So far, a contingent of several hundred firefighters had managed to carve containment lines around 55 percent of the fire's perimeter.

The blaze was one of the biggest - and most threatening - of 16 large wildfires being fought across the country on Wednesday.

Most were in seven Western states - Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Utah, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, reported.

Although federal authorities say the fire season has gotten off to an early start this summer in parts of the Northern Rockies, the number of fires and acreage burned nationwide is still well below the 10-year average for this time of year, according to fire agency records.

In a reminder that even relatively small fires can cause significant upheaval, a 450-acre (182-hectare) blaze burning near the town of Lake Isabella, nestled within the Sequoia National Forest in California, prompted the evacuation of about 160 homes and cabins, as well as the Hungry Gulch campground near Sequoia National Park.

But Forest Service officials say that blaze is more than 35 percent contained and no structures have been damaged.

An even smaller was reported on Tuesday to have destroyed six houses and five outbuildings near Mountain Home, Idaho, some 40 miles southeast of Boise.

In San Francisco on Wednesday, a four-alarm building fire roared through Pier 29, the future site of the America's Cup yacht race, along the famed Embarcadero waterfront, but no one was reported hurt.

The cause was unknown, but the vacant three-story terminal had been undergoing construction before the blaze.