Fire Rages Across Colorado With Historic Gusto

The Waldo Canyon wild fire in Colorado is threatening the city of Colorado Springs and the U.S. Air Force Academy there. The fire doubled in size overnight. Public safety officials have issued more than 32,000 mandatory evacuation orders. This latest fire is now one of the largest in the state's history.

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Along the western edge of Colorado Springs, Colorado, firefighters are battling flames, heat and strong winds as they try to keep even more of the city from burning. The massive Waldo Canyon fire has displaced about 32,000 people and destroyed an untold number of homes. It's also threatening the U.S. Air Force Academy. From Colorado Public Radio, Megan Verlee reports.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: When incident commander Rich Harvey stepped in front of reporters this morning, he opened with what many would consider an understatement.

RICH HARVEY: It's almost a historically challenging day.

VERLEE: Sixty-five-mile-an-hour winds and drought-crisp vegetation combined to turn a mountain wildfire into an inferno this week - a fast-moving blaze that tore across roads, through fire breaks and down into the western edges of Colorado's second largest city. As Harvey spoke, an occasional flake of ash drifted out of the hot, dirty morning air. He promised the crews under his command would spend the day battling the fire on all sides.

HARVEY: Firefighters are kind of one of those critters that when you kick them, they get back up tougher the next day, and they're going to go out there with smiles on their faces and try to do a good job for you all today.

VERLEE: There are now more than a thousand firefighters working on the blaze - hot shot crews out in the wild areas and municipal fire trucks in the burning neighborhoods. They're part of a massive national effort focused on Colorado. The most destructive fire in the state's history has been burning for weeks now near the Wyoming border. And just yesterday, a new blaze popped up to threaten the city of Boulder. But Harvey promised the Waldo Canyon fire would get the resources it needs.

HARVEY: We've gone through federal ordering systems. We've gone neighbor to neighbor. We've tapped friends. We've done everything we can to get the right resources here to do the job.

VERLEE: As crews race to get control of the fire, normal life in Colorado Springs is on hold. Tuesday was primary day. But the morning after the election, El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark barely seemed aware that she'd won.

SALLIE CLARK: It was hard. This morning, I was getting congratulation notes from people who've been evacuated. And I'm like, how are you? What's going on? Are you OK? They're congratulating me for winning the primary, and I'm saying back to them, that's not important. How are you - you know, how are you today?

VERLEE: Some of those evacuees made their way to the fire command center today, seeking more information about their homes. Standing in front of a big map, information officer Greg Heule tried to help them sort out the fire perimeter.

GREG HEULE: Well, let's see. Here's Garden of the Gods. It would be up about there. So you're well out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK. So I live right at the corner of Centennial and 30th.

HEULE: So just because it's inside the fire line does not guarantee that it's lost, OK?

VERLEE: Officials are urging evacuees to be patient. They say the fire is too active to start giving people exact addresses of the homes burned. That wasn't good enough for Nolen Brown(ph). He says he's grateful to firefighters for the work they're doing. But...

NOLEN BROWN: Take a picture. You've been flying. You've got helicopters over there. You've got airplanes flying over there. You've got infrared. You've got police patrolling. That should be something very important question to answer. That's what we want to hear.

VERLEE: Nolen knows the fire got into his foothills neighborhood yesterday. But until he gets precise information, there's nothing he can do but wonder.

BROWN: You know, I think it's a hit or miss. You know, I've heard that three houses will be burned and one will be spared, you know? You want that one that's spared to be yours, but you also feel for your neighbors, you know? So no matter what, it's going to be bad.

VERLEE: All of Colorado Springs is bracing for bad. Now they're just hoping that the weather complies before bad gets worse. For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee in Colorado Springs.

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