Mass evacuations ordered as wildfires rage in Colorado

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Marking the worst fire season in Colorado history, three major blazes are burning uncontrolled in the Rocky Mountain state, destroying hundreds of homes, prompting mass evacuations in Colorado Springs and threatening the city of Boulder 100 miles away.

For weeks, Colorado has been in a state of siege as the mammoth High Park fire raged unhindered in mountain wilderness west of Fort Collins, destroying 257 rural homesteads and cabins, while residents of cities and suburbs to the east held their collective breath and prayed that the flames would not reach them.

Experts are warning already fire-weary Coloradans that this could be the new routine for their state — that the blazes could rage all summer until the arrival of the autumn rains.

On Wednesday, the Waldo Canyon fire, named for a popular hiking area west of the state’s second-largest city, Colorado Springs, continued to burn unchecked. It prompted the evacuation of 32,000 people in the metropolitan area of 600,000, including portions of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The fire, which ignited Saturday, exploded late Tuesday, doubling in size in just hours. Propelled by winds blowing 60 mph, the blaze jumped barriers to scourge neighborhoods, destroying dozens of homes as well as such landmarks as the historic Flying W Ranch, a popular tourist attraction that drew as many as 1,000 people a night for music and western-style dining.

Susan Joy Paul had stood her ground inside the Colorado Springs home where she raised her now-grown children, until she heard the panic in a friend’s voice on the phone. With the main highways clogged with 20,000 evacuees, she fled along back roads, finally reaching a vantage point where she could survey her Shadow Valley neighborhood.

“It looked like big red torches going up,” she said. “That’s when it hit me: Those are houses.”

Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, said this year was the culmination of nearly a decade of record fire seasons. “Definitely we’re having a changing climate,” he said, adding that less snowfall in Colorado last winter brought the fire season to the state more than a month early.

“This significantly exceeds what we saw 10, 20, 30 years ago,” said Tidwell, a former firefighter. He said the Colorado fires were especially dangerous because they were so erratic, adding that large fires could create their own weather patterns, rendering traditional weather forecasts unreliable.

Mammoth fires raged around the West in 2002, threatening giant sequoia groves in California, charring a million acres of southern Oregon forest land and forcing mass evacuations in New Mexico’s high country. The amount of land burned nationally in wildfires declined later in the decade but then ballooned again last year, when parts of drought-stricken Texas were hit by waves of flames.

Dry weather and high temperatures are again producing incendiary conditions, with forecasters predicting higher-than-normal wildfire potential in much of the West, including the Sierra Nevada and portions of the Southwest and the Rockies.

In the Boulder area, residents have learned to keep a wary eye on the sky, watching not only the plume of smoke rising from the outskirts of town but also the slurry bombers roaring overhead to dump their loads.

By Wednesday, the fire was just a mile and a half from town, and authorities had evacuated 28 households and warned another 2,500 to be ready to flee.

Meanwhile, officials worry about the fatigue of thousands of firefighters on the line. In northern Colorado, where the 136-square-mile High Park fire has already destroyed hundreds of homes and killed one woman, fire managers offered to shift to Boulder and Colorado Springs to join the fights there.

President Obama planned to visit the state’s fire zones Friday to thank firefighters.

Colorado’s climate and vegetation have the capacity to create enormous fires. In summer 2002, the state’s largest-ever blaze thwarted efforts to control it and marched ominously toward Denver with a fire front 20 miles long and 14 miles wide.

Meteorologists said the 15,000-foot smoke plume from the Hayman fire spawned nightly thunderstorms in neighboring states and triggered two tornadoes that spun through Kansas. Ultimately the Hayman fire destroyed 133 homes, forced the evacuation of more than 5,300 people and cost $40 million.

The newest blazes have sent Coloradans into a frenzied pitch of fire fear and loathing. Even outside the burn areas, days of record triple-digit heat and strong winds have created a dry-as-dust landscape.

In a state where exercise is a way of life for residents, the unpredictable nature of the fires has hot-wired nerves. People watch as the flames destroy groups of houses but leave one untouched. Children call their parents — and vice versa — each time the fire changes direction or someone spots a lightning strike.

Through tweets and dramatic fire pictures posted on social media sites, uneasy residents have reached out to friends and family — and anyone else who will listen to their stories of being in the path of unpredictable fires. Others talk about the panic they feel every time they see a firetruck hurry down the road.

“Any time I see or hear a firetruck race by our house, my chest and stomach get tight, especially if there has been recent lightning,” said Roxanne Hawn, who lives just outside Denver, miles from the blaze. “It’s like being afraid of heights — the clenching inside feels the same.”

Felice Vigil, a mother of three, awoke Tuesday in the residential section of the Air Force Academy unable to breathe. Even though the fire was nearby, she had felt reassured that she and her family were safe because they were on a military installation.

But when she looked outside, she said, the smoke swirling through her yard was so thick it looked like a solid object, waist-high. “It was like something out of a Freddy Krueger movie,” she said Wednesday.

By late afternoon, a sudden burst of wind had upended her patio furniture. The fire was racing toward the academy as military police rolled through the streets telling everyone to get out.

“I tried to be calm for my kids,” she said, standing outside a YMCA evacuation shelter, “but inside I was terrified, completely panicked.” With no idea whether her house survived, she is now staying with family. She took her children to the shelter so they could swim and get their minds off what they had seen.

There is little doubt this fire will stay with them, though. Gabe Vigil, 8, proudly held up a chalk drawing of a perfect house. “This is what I hope our house still looks like,” he said.

Susan Joy Paul symbolizes Colorado’s angst of just not knowing. She had kept her eye on the Waldo Canyon fire since it started Saturday.

On Tuesday, a friend told her the fire had jumped a nearby ridge, that the massive cloud of billowing smoke was heading her way. Already, daytime had turned to night as smoke blocked the sun. Giant flakes of ash — some as wide as her hand — swirled in her frontyard.

She heard an explosion, maybe a generator, and then the lights and TV went out. “This is not right. We shouldn’t be here,” she told her roommate. “I feel like we’re in hell.”

Two police cars drove down the street, bullhorns blaring for everyone to evacuate. “We had no time,” she said.

She threw her laptop, her notes for the book she is writing, some food, pictures of her children and a backpack into her compact car and started driving. “It was so confusing. Black ash was flying around like bats. At every corner there were cops yelling at me, waving me in different directions,” she said.

On Wednesday, Paul said she could almost forget about the nightmare that unfolded the night before. Almost, but not quite. “I need to cry,” she said, her voice teetering on despair. “I need to but can’t. Not yet. Not until I know.”

Paul was camped at a local library, trying to get some work done, fearing the worst, praying that life as she knew it wasn’t over.

“I want to see it, but I don’t,” she said of her home. “I want to see it like it was, but I know that’s not going to happen.”

Deam, a special correspondent, reported from Colorado Springs and Glionna from Las Vegas.

Times staff writers Julie Cart and Bettina Boxall in Los Angeles contributed to this report.