Fierce winds drove a massive wildfire toward Denver's southern suburbs on Monday as authorities prepared to evacuate tens of thousands of residents and entire towns in its path.
The fire's growth astonished officials here--expanding from 300 acres to more than 75,000 in 24 hours. It was moving so fast Monday that firefighters were ordered off fire lines.
The blaze began Saturday in the Pike National Forest and raced north, feasting on a vast swath of pine trees. It burned so hot that it generated its own weather: Fire tornados swirled within the blaze, columns of smoke shot up to 15,000 feet and a heat-created wind scattered flames in all directions.
The fire was throwing off so much heat that smaller fires were igniting as much as a mile ahead of it. Smoke from the fire--the largest in Colorado history--moved into Wyoming and Nebraska and could be seen from space.
Winds up to 35 miles per hour blew the fire to within 20 miles of the Denver metropolitan area. Throughout the day, it moved toward the city at about 2 miles per hour. By evening, 6,000 homes in four counties south of Denver were evacuated. The Forest Service said up to 40,000 residents could be sent to Red Cross shelters set up around the region.
"It's hard to describe how dangerous a fire like this is," said Lynn Young of the U.S. Forest Service. "A fire going this fast and going through treetops cannot be stopped. It can't be stopped by a river, it can't be stopped by a subdivision. It's very much out of control. There's nothing to do but get out of the way."
The blaze began in Park County and spread to Teller County, both south of Denver. Late Sunday, it swept north through Douglas County, the state's fastest-growing area, and by Monday it had encroached into Jefferson County, home to Denver's bedroom communities.
The blaze is threatening sprawling subdivisions and small, densely packed communities in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, as well as Chatfield Reservoir, Denver's water source.
The blaze, known as the Hayman Fire, was designated the nation's top firefighting priority. But there are so many serious fires elsewhere in Colorado that firefighting resources are stretched thin.
Air tankers are being shared between the Hayman Fire and the 10,000-acre Glenwood Springs fire, west of Denver, which destroyed 25 homes. That fire remained out of control Monday, with more than 2,000 people evacuated.
There are about nine fires raging in Colorado, which is having its worst wildfire season in history. The state released $10 million to pay for firefighting efforts, which have been draining state coffers for a month.
Gov. Bill Owens announced a statewide ban on open fires and smoking outdoors. He prohibited the sale and use of fireworks. He also closed a handful of state parks.
The Forest Service closed the Pike-San Isabel National Forest, a regional recreation mecca. A Forest Service spokesman said it was too risky to keep the forest open because too many people were ignoring the campfire ban. Officials said the Hayman Fire was started by an illegal campfire.
As the wildfire moved north, it left rural areas and began to race toward Denver's southernmost suburbs. Although the fire had officially destroyed only one structure, officials said that statistic will rise as surveillance planes are able to get into the air to assess the damage and as the fire moves into the state's most populous region.
County sheriffs were making evacuation decisions throughout the day. The logistics were daunting for a mass evacuation over small county roads and from mountain towns.
"We have made our entire staff available for this emergency," said Sgt. Attila Denes of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department. The county's evacuation plan had never been put to such a test, he said.
"We've canceled all days off and put people on 12-hour shifts. We hope we have adequate staffing to get it done. But planning and reality can be a different thing," Denes said.
In densely populated Jefferson County, the sheriff's office was poised to evacuate small communities in the foothills west of Denver, as well as large subdivisions of custom homes to the south.
Just outside Denver, in the Roxborough Park area near Littleton, 14,000 residents were waiting for an evacuation order. Amy Arens, who was housesitting for her parents, didn't wait for the official word. Arens took two family dogs to a kennel and loaded the minivan with family pictures, artwork and important documents.
"Most everyone I know is packing up and heading out," she said of her neighbors. "It's not a mandatory evacuation, but I'm out of here too."
In the town of Conifer, home to many who commute to Denver, residents packed cars and left them in their driveways. Most were deliberating whether to leave.
During what should have been the dinner rush at Conifer's Green Valley Grill, there were only two diners. Assistant manager Alexis Lovejoy anxiously wondered what to do.
"They're evacuating everything south of us but we haven't been told to leave yet," Lovejoy said. "But there are ashes falling from the sky. This is making me nervous. I think it's time to think about leaving."
The Colorado Red Cross was so overwhelmed responding to this and several other major fires in the state that it called for assistance from its national office. The organization was scrambling to set up shelters in high school gymnasiums but was frustrated by the fire's changing path. Several times a shelter was designated, only to be changed because fire officials feared for its safety.
"Holy cow, we've been moving like crazy to get the shelters open," said Matt Bertram of the Rocky Mountain Red Cross. "We're moving into urban shelters for the first time. I've never seen a fire move this fast. It's almost unheard of."
Fire bosses acknowledged there was little to do in the face of such a wall of flames and smoke. Two slurry bombers were able to dump retardant on the blaze, but no firefighters were placed ahead of the fire and only a few were used to attack its flank.
Local fire departments in towns ahead of the fire were contacted and told to forgo any effort to battle the blaze.
"There's no way to make a stand in front of this fire," said incident commander Rowdy Muir. "You can't save homes; you can't save anything."
The sheer size of the Hayman Fire has posed problems. It is 20 miles long and seven miles wide and its leading edge has split into three long fingers. The fire has grown so large that officials are planning to designate it as two fires today, with command centers on its north and south.
Gusting winds Monday fanned the blaze, making it unpredictable.
"When you get a fire started with that kind of wind, there's not much you can do to stop it," said Tom Wordell, a wildfire analyst with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, who has been monitoring the Hayman Fire. "You get very intense flames, very high flame lengths, and the ability to control that fire exceeds the capability of firefighting resources."
Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this report.