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Thousands Flee After Colorado Fire Doubles in Size

June 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A fire near Colorado Springs has consumed more than 24 square miles as record heat and drought continue. Gwen Ifill gets an update from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on the challenge of containing the blaze.

JEFFREY BROWN: A firestorm raged in the Colorado countryside today, after exploding across containment lines near Colorado Springs. Firefighters struggled to keep up and homeowners scrambled to get out of the way.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden begins our coverage.

TOM BEARDEN: The flames swallowed entire neighborhoods on the edge of Colorado Springs overnight. The mayor’s office said dozens of homes were destroyed.

MAN: Visibility is down to near zero in many parts of the northern half of Colorado Springs.

TOM BEARDEN: The Waldo Canyon fire seemed to flare out of control in the blink of an eye when the winds picked up unexpectedly.

WOMAN: These winds started picking up to about 65 miles per hour. That wasn’t in the plan.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER (D), Colorado: This is tough, and we’re going to — and we know it’s going to be tough, but we’re also not going to back away. We’re not going to back quit.

TOM BEARDEN: Some 32,000 people were ordered to evacuate, and fast, including hundreds living on the U.S. Air Force Academy campus. They grabbed precious possessions on the fly.

WOMAN: I’m so scared. I don’t want to lose my home.

WOMAN: It’s upsetting to see our state on fire.

MAN: Flames were coming down the hill towards the road and people were driving up on the median and stuff. So, it was nuts.

TOM BEARDEN: Shelters were set up offering food, water and a place to sleep. There was even room for household pets.

JERRY LILLY, Resident of Colorado: I’m kind of numb at the moment. I think the kids are handling it a little better than I am. I’m a little worried about where we’re going to stay tonight and how we’re going to get things done. The fire was like less than a mile from my house and the flames were huge and pretty scary when you have three kids and all your pets.

TOM BEARDEN: In fact, according to a recent report, one in four homes in Colorado lies in a fire risk zone and 100,000 people have moved into those zones in the last decade.* That left a lot of people living on the edge, as the Waldo Canyon fire roared across 24 square miles.

But officials insisted they do have the manpower to cope.

If you have all those resources and all those boots on the ground, how did you lose houses last night?

GREG HEULE, Public Information Officer: Mother Nature just decided move the fire the way she wanted to go. And when you have Mother Nature in that kind of situation, with those three factors that affect fire behavior, fuels, topography and weather, when those three are in alignment, there’s nothing anyone can do.

TOM BEARDEN: And Mother Nature was set to pose fresh challenges.

RICH HARVEY, Fire Incident Commander: We expect the development of thunderstorms over the fire this afternoon. Thunderstorms present a unique problem for us, in that the wind can come in any direction from those at any time with pretty strong gusts. So we do expect all of our lines to be challenged again today.

TOM BEARDEN: Another challenge for firefighters is the heat. Colorado is in the midst of a seemingly unending heat wave, temperatures forecast in the high 90s today.

And officials say the pall of smoke over Colorado’s second largest city isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. Yet another blaze, the Flagstaff fire, crept closer to Boulder, Colorado, after lightning ignited brush yesterday.

MAN: The clouds rolled through and a couple of lightning bolts hit the ground and we saw one come hit the Flatirons and smoke billowed out right afterwards.

TOM BEARDEN: The fire prompted mandatory evacuations in Boulder County, and warnings in the city of Boulder.

MAN: Photos, photos, photos.

WOMAN: We packed things that we thought were mementos, photographs.

TOM BEARDEN: Military C-130s dropped fire retardant on the flames and residents even hired private outfits to protect their homes.

MAN: We’re pre-treating the vegetation behind both homes very significantly, which will hold up for the next several hours.

TOM BEARDEN: There was a spot of good news further north. The 136-square-mile High Park fire near Fort Collins is now 65 percent contained.

BETH LUND, Fire Incident Commander: We use the engines to wet down the fuels, and then we have to have firefighters actually turn that soil over and make sure that all the live material is out, extinguished. So, a lot of folks don’t realize the amount of work that has to go into securing that fire line. And we try to get it a couple hundred feet in secure, so that if a gust of wind comes up, it doesn’t — there’s nothing hot on the edge to blow across the line.

TOM BEARDEN: In fact, crews that have been fighting the High Park fire drove south today as reinforcements against the Waldo Canyon fire.

GWEN IFILL: Rain began falling as the day wore on, but not yet enough to aid those firefighters. The White House announced today President Obama will travel to Colorado to tour the fire scene this Friday.

For more on where things stand, I spoke a short time ago with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.

Governor Hickenlooper, thank you for joining us.

Can you give us a sense of how much worse this devastation is today than it was this time yesterday?

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Well, you know, we have got this terrible drought. And we have been fighting a number of fires around Colorado again, relatively speaking, a tiny part of the state, but it seems like there’s been a lot of fire.

And we knew we had this fire started on Saturday just to the west of Colorado Springs. But it was over on the other side of the mountain. Late yesterday afternoon, we had those — you know, a front move through with high winds, what they call a column collapse, and, literally, in a matter of hours, the fire just blew past everything that had been done, overwhelm — I mean, nothing could have stopped it; 60-, 70-mile-per-hour gusts of winds pushed this through the trees and into residential subdivisions at a pace that — again, the firefighters were incredible, but nothing could have stopped this fire.

GWEN IFILL: But you’re still talking about 32,000 people evacuated.

Are they — do you have any way of knowing whether people are obeying these evacuation orders, and where are they going?

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Oh, they are definitely obeying the evacuation orders.

I mean, if you saw the — some of the footage of the fire, it was very intense. We flew a helicopter up yesterday to — from Denver down to — I-25 is completely closes, do we flew in — to get down to the scene, we flew over the fire, and it was — it looked like some sort of a, you know, extreme movie set, just fire everywhere, houses willy-nilly.

I don’t think anyone is trying to stay in their home and defend — some people are very frustrated being forced to evacuate and worrying about their homes. But most of them are staying with friends, and we have — Red Cross has done an incredible job of setting up shelters, but the vast majority of people are staying with friends and helping each other, which is how Colorado and how America has always dealt with these kind of things.

GWEN IFILL: And how has the Air Force Academy been affected by this? We know that the fire has at least been along the borders, but have there been evacuations there, and is this a federal, state, or county responsibility?

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Well, we evacuated the Air Force Academy yesterday. The fire was coming so fast. And this was even before it blew up.

So we still have today — we worked it out last night — what they call a dual-status command. And it’s a way by which a governor and the president can coordinate efforts. we have a dual-status commander now who is a guy named Pete Byrne (ph), who is an Air Force National Guard representative.

And so he operates as the liaison to make sure that we can take federal assets and soldiers, bulldozers, helicopters, whatever tool we can to bring to this fire, and coordinate it, so we don’t get into each other’s ways with the National Guard and the civilian efforts and the U.S. Forest Service efforts. And…

GWEN IFILL: Governor — I’m sorry. Go ahead.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER: That’s full tilt. So, we stood up that today. I talked to — I mean, we went all the way up through the command.

GWEN IFILL: I know you talked to the president about it.

Governor, you had some pretty tough words yesterday for the possibility that arsonists may have had anything to do with spreading this fire. What is your sense whether that is so and — or whether it’s lightning strikes or other natural sparks here?

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Well, we don’t have pure evidence, but there were — certainly there have been a lot of rumors and stories, and what we want to make sure is we don’t jump to conclusions. Or we want to make sure that we are judicious and cautious in our approach.

But just the very thought that somebody would be out there trying to cause a fire, right, an arsonist who for some strange kick gets joy out of this, I wanted to make clear that we’d throw the book at them. Right? An aggravated arson, you can get up to 48 years in Colorado.

And in conditions like this, where it’s so dry, and just to think about putting people at risk like that, it just — it, I think, drives everybody crazy, right? It just makes your blood boil.

GWEN IFILL: In the meantime, you can only hope that the weather turns to your advantage.

Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado, thank you so much.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Well, we appreciate it. And we appreciate all the help — the federal government — the president did call today. We have had Secretary Napolitano. We have had so much support from all over the country. Governor Deval Patrick called this morning from Massachusetts.

It does make you appreciate what America is.

GWEN IFILL: Thanks so much.



*This information comes from an I-News investigative report.