By P. SOLOMON BANDA and THOMAS PEIPERT
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by a raging wildfire that has encroached on the state's second-largest city and threatened the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Mayor Steve Bach said Thursday a more accurate account will be available later in the day. The blaze was burning out of control early Thursday in the mountains and within Colorado's second-largest city, after more than 30,000 evacuees frantically packed up belongings and fled.
The wildfire was one of many burning across the parched West, blazes that have destroyed structures and prompted evacuations in Montana and Utah and forced the closure of a portion of Zion National Park.
Shifting winds Wednesday challenged firefighters trying to contain the 29-square-mile Waldo Canyon blaze and extinguish hot spots inside Colorado Spring's western suburbs. The National Weather Service reported 60 mph winds and lightning above the fire Wednesday afternoon, but winds were calmer by nightfall.
Thursday's forecast offered some hope, with the temperature expected to reach into the mid-80s - about 5 degrees cooler than Wednesday - and humidity 15 to 20 percent, about 5 percentage points higher.
Winds were forecast to be 10 to 15 mph out of the west.
"It's not windy yet this morning. That's always a good sign," fire information officer Rob Dyerberg said Thursday.
Neighborhoods where explosions of bright orange flame Tuesday signaled yet another house had been claimed were still dangerous, keeping authorities away from being to assess the damage.
But an AP aerial photo taken Wednesday of one neighborhood showed dozens if not hundreds of heavily damaged or destroyed homes.
Ed and Florine Gigandet took refuge in a hotel in Manitou Springs, which days earlier had been evacuated when the same fire passed through. They fled their home as ash fell on their driveway from an ominous orange smoke overhead.
Trying to learn about damage, the Gigandets drove to near their west Colorado Springs neighborhood to talk to police officers and see the area. They scoured media photos and spent hours on the phone with friends for any scrap of information. Authorities told the Gigandets it could be at least week before they're allowed home.
"We only packed clothes for four days," Florine Gigandet, 83, a retired photo printer, said. "I really thought that we'd be gone for only a day."
The displaced residents took stock of what they left behind. Some sat in coffee shops, others stood on bluffs to keep an eye on their neighborhoods, and others met with insurance company representatives.
The fire moved so fast that Laura Oldland grabbed damp laundry out of her drier and threw it into a suitcase. But she forgot her grandmother's dishes.
The Gigandets, avid golfers, left their clubs behind. "We should be out golfing," said Ed Gigandet, 81, a retired mining machinery sales analyst.
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.
Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey said Obama's visit to Colorado, considered a key battleground state in the presidential election, would not tax the city's already-strained police force. Gov. John Hickenlooper said he expected the president might sign a disaster declaration that would allow for more federal aid.
The fire burned about 10 acres along the southwest boundary of the Air Force Academy campus. No injuries or damage to structures - including the iconic Cadet Chapel - were reported.
Late Wednesday night, Air Force Academy officials announced they were relocating about 550 cadets off academy grounds. About 200 cadets in summer academics were being moved to the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, and 350 others in airmanship and other training programs were released to local sponsor families, the school said. The cadet area isn't immediately threatened, and an incoming class of more than 1,000 is still scheduled to arrive Thursday.
About 120 soldiers from nearby Fort Carson built firebreaks around parts of the academy, aided by equipment including 10 heavy bulldozers, four excavators, 13 military transportation and support vehicles, and one commercial road grader, Army officials said.
The full scope of the 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.
Indeed, authorities were too busy Wednesday struggling to save homes in near-zero visibility to count how many had been destroyed in what is the latest test for a drought-parched and tinder-dry state. At one point, a team assessing the damage had to leave charred neighborhoods because of smoke and fire danger.
Carey said officials had no plans to release the numbers of homes destroyed - insisting residents have a right to be told first, in private.
The FBI said it was investigating the cause of the blaze.
In addition to the some 30,000 evacuees, about 3,000 more people were evacuated to the west of the fire, Teller County authorities said Wednesday, and Teller County courts were closed through Thursday.
The Red Cross was accommodating victims at its shelters, with space enough for perhaps 2,500 people. Most evacuees were staying with family and friends.
Crews also were battling a deadly and destructive wildfire in northern Colorado and another that flared Tuesday night near Boulder.
Colorado wasn't the only state affected by fire, as several burned throughout the parched West.
Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, said there is competition for firefighting resources, including aircraft. "We're still at a point where we've got lots of available assets to mix and match on individual incidents."
Some states are seeing fires earlier this year, but Harbour said resources are far from being exhausted.
"With over 10,000 firefighters in the Forest Service and the ability to get over 700 aircraft of all types, we're feeling cautiously confident when you look at the season as a whole," Harbour said.
Among the fires elsewhere in the West:
- A 72-square-mile wildfire in central Utah has destroyed at least 56 structures, mainly homes, and continues to burn with little containment, authorities said Wednesday. Officials expected the damage estimate to rise considerably as they continue their assessment of the fire-ravaged area between Fountain Green and Fairview and north across the Utah County line. Officials returned to an evacuated area and found a woman dead Tuesday.
- The smaller New Harmony Fire near St. George started Wednesday afternoon and had grown to 2,000 acres by midnight, forcing an undetermined number of residents near New Harmony and Bumblebee to evacuate. The fire was burning about three miles north of Zion National Park, prompting park officials to close a canyon area popular with hikers known as the Kolob section.
- Wildfires that have torched more than 200 square miles and burned dozens of homes in southeastern Montana spread farther Wednesday, with additional evacuations ordered after a blaze south of Roundup jumped a perimeter line built by firefighters. The growing Dahl fire, which has burned more than 60 homes by one estimate, forced an unknown number of residents to leave their homes near its southern flank, on top of an estimated 600 people evacuated the day before.
"That's one of the most dangerous fires in the history of Montana," Gov. Brian Schweitzer said.
- A wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest has grown from about 2,000 acres to 12,000 acres, or nearly 19 square miles, officials said Wednesday. Authorities worked to get campers out of the area.
Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.