The raging Colorado Springs wildfire sent thousands of people fleeing yesterday and left them begging exhausted fire crews for information on the fate of their homes.
The fire, which doubled in size to around 28 square miles, had forced more than 32,000 residents to evacuate from the state's second largest city. Among those urgently evacuated were cadets at the Air Force Academy as firefighters fought to save the building.
Heavy smoke and ash billowed down the mountain from the Waldo Canyon Fire, which is top priority for the nation's firefighters. Jeffrey Lucas, who has lived in the area all his life, said his family home had burned to the ground.
Watching it burn: Distraught residents stand helplessly as high winds push the Waldo Canyon Fire into the Garden of the Gods and Mountain Shadows neighborhoods in Colorado Springs
Run for your life: Smoke and ash billowed down the hill from the Waldo Canyon wildfire causing 32,000 residents to be evacuated
Courage under fire: Firefighters struggle to get close to the blaze (left) while evacuated residents wait anxiously for news of their homes
The 23-year-old told the Denver Post: 'The fire was literally coming down the hill as all of us were running to grab things out of the house and get out of there.'
He added that there were no calls from police and they had seen how close the fire was getting from watching news reports on TV. The family watched their home catch fire just 30 minutes after they escaped.
With flames looming overhead, residents clogged roads shrouded in smoke and flying embers, their fear punctuated by explosions of bright orange flame at 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.'
Neighborhood inferno: The Waldo Canyon Fire engulfs an entire neighborhood in the foothills of Colorado Springs as temperatures of more than 100 degrees only served to fuel the flames
Gone with the wind: High winds push the Waldo Canyon Fire into the Garden of the Gods and Mountain Shadows neighborhoods in Colorado Springs, Colorado; three men capture the destruction with cameras and mobile phones
Gusty: Two men survey the smoke from the top of a rocky hill as wind blows the thick smoke through the air
Watching as Rome burns: A man outside of Colorado Springs observes the blanket of smoke billowing out from Colorado Springs
Different forms of devastation: Left, Susan Custer wears a mask as she checks on her sister's home, and right, a girl wipes away tears
Wilma Juachon sat under a tree at an evacuation center, wearing a mask to block the smoke. A tourist from California, she was evacuated from a fire near Rocky Mountain National Park last week and, now, from her Colorado Springs hotel.
'I said I hope it never happens again, and guess what?' Ms Juachon said.
Constantly shifting winds challenged firefighters trying to contain the 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.
Some 3,000 more people were evacuated to the west of the fire, Teller County authorities said yesterday.
Meanwhile, 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.
Seen from space: The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite captured this natural-color image on June 26; Smoke trails mark the locations of actively burning fires
What's left: Homes burned by the Waldo Canyon Fire are seen today; Fire-fighters struggled against a wildfire at the edge of Colorado Springs that doubled in size overnight and has forced 32,000 people from their homes
Head to the hills: A helicopter heads toward the mountains as a wildfire rolls through housing subdivisions in the mountains north and west of Colorado Springs earlier today
Quenching: A Modular Airborne Firefighting System-equipped C-130 drops fire retardant on a section of the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs
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.
Governor John Hickenlooper said he expected the president might sign a disaster declaration that would allow for more federal aid.
The full scope of the 28-square-mile 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. Steve Cox, a spokesman for Mayor Steve Bach, reported that at least dozens of homes had been consumed, though he had no more precise figure.
'It was like looking at the worst movie set you could imagine,' Governor John Hickenlooper said after flying over the 9-square-mile fire yesterday. 'It's almost surreal. You look at that, and it's like nothing I've seen before.'
Flames crested a ridge above the scenic, 28-square-mile Air Force Academy campus on Tuesday, and the school told more than 2,100 residents to evacuate 600 households in one housing area. By Wednesday, the smoke appeared farther away, said Lt. Col. John Bryan, an academy spokesman.
Covered in smoke: A plume of smoke from the Waldo Canyon wildfire rises behind homes west of Colorado Springs today
Hard day's night: A Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane helicopter drops slurry on a hot spot at the Waldo Canyon Fire
Surveying what's left: Chris Marsh, evacuated from the Waldo Canyon fire, tries to see if his house is damaged
The academy has its own fire department, which trains extensively for threats such as this, Bryan said. 'We're doing everything we can and obviously taking the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe,' he said.
Colorado Springs Fire Chief Richard Brown called the blaze ' a firestorm of epic proportions'.
Christine Williams and her daughter Serina saw flames consuming grass just 30 yards from their northwest Colorado Springs apartment complex when they fled.
'It was pretty close,' Serina Williams said Wednesday. 'It was too close for comfort, that's for sure. It's like we've had our life swiped out from underneath us.'
Sarah Safranek was in tears as she sought information about her house.'Right now I'd rather not know,' she said.
Fleeing: Tayor Salamon, 11, holds on to his dog as they pile in the back seat and his family rushes to leave their home in Colorado Spring
Getting some shut eye: Colorado Springs firefighters rest in the parking lot next to Station 9 Tuesday, June 26, 2012, between shifts fighting the Waldo Canyon Fire
A time to cry: Robert Garcia consoles his wife Margaret as they watch the Waldo Canyon Fire; The Garcias were evacuated yesterday and were trying today to see if their home were damaged
Ominous: A Red Cross van is parked on the side of highway 89 as smoke from the Wood Hollow fire fills the sky north of Fairview, Utah
Early morning: Firefighters stir from their tents at a firefighter camp at Holmes Middle School early Tuesday morning to begin work on the fourth day of the Waldo Canyon Fire
Battling: El Paso County Sheriff's Department wild land fire fighters George Bennett, right, and Connor Barkley stand watch near Cascade, Colorado, as the Waldo Canyon fire burns
Daring capture: A man stands outside of his car capturing the inferno with a camera phone
Ray of light: The sun manages to break through the thick smoke as cars line up to evacuate
Thunderstorms are expected near the blaze in the afternoon, but incident commander Rich Harvey says they could bring unpredictable winds that would hinder fire fighters’ efforts near the city of 419,000 people. The fire is about 5 per cent contained, Harvey said.
Throughout the interior West, fire-fighters have toiled for days in searing, record-setting heat against fires fuelled by prolonged drought. Most, if not all, of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana were under red flag warnings, meaning extreme fire danger.
The nation is experiencing 'a super-heated spike on top of a decades-long warming trend,' said Derek Arndt, head of climate monitoring at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.
Elsewhere in Colorado, the 136-square-mile High Park Fire has destroyed 257 homes, authorities said. That fire was triggered by lightning June 9.
Up in flames: An entire neighborhood burns near the foothills of Colorado Springs, Colo. on Tuesday, June 26