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Video: Winds stoke Colorado firestorm

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updated 6/28/2012 8:08:25 AM ET 2012-06-28T12:08:25

Residents of one community and part of another outside Colorado Springs, Colo., evacuated Wednesday as a "monster" fire more than doubled in size and a two-mile-wide wall of flame burned down the backside of a ridge.

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Mandatory evacuations were ordered for Crystola and part of Woodland Park after more than 32,000 people had to flee on Tuesday. How many new evacuees were moving out was not immediately available.

Fire crews had expected more weather trouble on Wednesday and by early afternoon scanner traffic confirmed the fire was still in full force.

The fire is moving down a ridge toward Teller County, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported, citing communications from an emergency services scanner. "It's huge," said the voice over the scanner. "I would estimate two-three miles in width."

Both Crystola and Woodland Park, population 7,000, are in Teller County.

In another scanner exchange, a request was made for more fire crews at Blodgett Peak near the U.S. Air Force Academy. "As of right now I cannot hold this hill," a voice said from the fire.

Heavy smoke made for unhealthy air in and around the city. After jumping fire lines Tuesday, the towering blaze has now burned more than 24 square miles and an undetermined number of homes.

While crews should get a break from the heat, a forecast for thunderstorms could mean unpredictable winds.

"We expect further trouble from the weather today," incident commander Rich Harvey said at a press briefing. "We do expect all of our lines to be challenged today."

By late afternoon, those winds started blowing, stirring flames and forcing some crews to retreat, the Gazette reported. C-130 planes used to bomb the fire with retardant were grounded.

Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown earlier Wednesday called the Waldo Canyon Fire a "monster event" that is "not even remotely close to being contained." The cause of the fire is under investigation.

The National Weather Service issued a forecast saying the next 48 hours would like be very challenging, as winds are forecast. On a scale of one to six on the Haines Index -- which measures the potential for fire growth -- the Waldo Canyon Fire is forecast to be a six by Friday evening.

The White House, meanwhile, said President Barack Obama would tour the area on Friday to offer his support.

Tuesday night, the community of Mountain Shadows, northwest of Colorado Springs, appeared to be enveloped in an orange glow.

People were "freaking out" as they fled Tuesday night, local resident Kathleen Tillman told the Denver Post. "You are driving through smoke. It is completely pitch black, and there is tons of ash dropping on the road."

Image: Smoke from the Waldo Canyon fire engulfs a highway in Colorado
Rick Wilking  /  Reuters
Smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire engulfs Interstate 25 north of Colorado Springs, Colo., Tuesday evening.

"This is a fire of epic proportions," Brown said at a briefing Tuesday night.

"It was like looking at the worst movie set you could imagine," Gov. John Hickenlooper added after flying over the fire. "It's almost surreal. You look at that, and it's like nothing I've seen before."

Video: Evacuated: uncertainty breeds fear in the fire zone (on this page)

Brown insisted that "many, many homes" were saved by firefighters.

Hickenlooper told anxious residents that "we have all the support of the U.S. government. We have all the support of the state of Colorado. And we want everybody here to know that."

He emphasized that Colorado was open to tourism, saying various fires had affected just a half-percent of all public lands and perhaps 400 of 10,000 campground sites.

Story: Extreme heat roasts Central Plains, heads east next

Among the evacuees were cadets and staff living in one section of the sprawling U.S. Air Force Academy. Flames crested a ridge high above the campus on Tuesday, forcing more than 2,100 residents there to flee.

A new class of 1,045 cadets will still check in on Thursday but at a different section of the campus. The academy said the entire campus would be closed Wednesday to all visitors and non-essential staff.

Colorado is battling 12 large fires, its worst fire season in history, and other states across the West are being taxed as well.

To the north in Boulder County, 26 homes were evacuated Tuesday when lightning sparked a wildfire. No structures were immediately threatened, but the National Center for Atmospheric Research closed as a precaution.

Wildfires leave Colorado tourism high and dry

The state's largest blaze is the 136-square-mile High Park Fire, which has destroyed 257 homes and killed one woman. That fire was triggered by lightning on June 9 and is nearly contained.

Most of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have seen red flag warnings in recent days, meaning extreme fire danger.

Much of the U.S. is seeing "a super-heated spike on top of a decades-long warming trend," Derek Arndt, head of climate monitoring at the National Climatic Data Center, told the Associated Press.

Although the fire season got off to an early start in the West, the number of fires and acreage burned nationwide is still below the 10-year average for this time of year.

Elsewhere in the West:

  • In Utah, a woman was found dead Tuesday in a blaze that has consumed several dozen homes. Her body was found during a damage assessment of the 60-square-mile Wood Hollow Fire near Indianola. The fire was 15 percent contained and evacuations were issued in Fairview, a town of about 1,100 residents.
  • In New Mexico, a fire that burned nearly 70 square miles west of Ruidoso was 90 percent contained, with many residents allowed to return home.
  • In Montana, a wildfire just 2 miles north of Helena destroyed four homes and forced people out of 200 homes. Gov. Brian Schweitzer issued a state of emergency for four counties.
  • In Wyoming, a wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest grew from about 300 acres to 2,000 acres Tuesday, marking the first major wildfire of the season there.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: Wildfires ravage Western states

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  1. Jeff and Sydney Sheehan on July 4 survey their Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs, Colo. Sheehan's house escaped damage but 347 homes were destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A helicopter drops water on the Fontenelle Fire outside Big Piney, Wyo., on July 4. Over 800 firefighters were battling the fire. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Firefighters work the Fontenelle Fire outside Big Piney, Wyo., on July 4. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Firefighter Ryan Christian sits with his crew from Alaska before heading out to fight the Fontenelle Fire outside Big Piney, Wyoming, on July 4. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Flames consume trees during a burnout operation out at the Fontenelle Fire on July 4. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A plane drops slurry on the Quail Fire in Alpine, Utah, on July 3. (George Frey / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A house is surrounded by a burned landscape as a helicopter flies above after dropping water on the Quail Fire in Alpine, Utah, on July 3. (George Frey / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Lightning strikes as rain clouds approach the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs on July 3. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Teresa Jiles looks over the debris that was her home in the Glacier View residential area near Livermore, Colo., on July 2. The last evacuees from the High Park Fire were allowed to return home as crews fully contained the 136-square-mile blaze that killed one resident and destroyed 259 houses. (Ed Andrieski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. People cheer and greet firefighters returning to the evacuation shelter at Holmes Middle School in Colorado Springs, Colo., on July 2, after crews spent the day battling the Waldo Canyon Fire. (Bryan Oller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. These signs left by residents in the Mountain Shadows community of Colorado Springs, Colorado, were visible on July 2. Nearly 350 homes were destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire blankets a hill on July 2 as a deer walks through a neighborhood thathad been evacuated. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Neighbors who had evacuated embrace after returning to their homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on July 1. Residents began returning to charred areas after the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history forced tens of thousands of people from their homes and left the landscape a blackened wasteland. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A utilities worker walks past the skeleton of a vehicle while searching for gas leaks in the Mountain Shadows subdivision in Colorado Springs, Colo., on July 2. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Policemen wait for residents who were temporarily allowed to visit their homes in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood on July 1. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. The Church at the Ranch holds its services on July 1 at the Penrose Norris Event Center in Colorado Springs. It would normally hold services at Flying W Ranch, but their place of worship burned down in the Waldo Canyon Fire. (Jerilee Bennett / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Members of Bighorn 209, a hand crew from the Crow Agency in Montana, check for hot spots on the Waldo Canyon Fire on June 29. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Homes destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire are seen from the air on June 30 in Colorado Springs. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Smoke billows at sunrise from part of the Waldo Canyon fire on June 30 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. President Barack Obama talks to firefighters while touring the Mountain Shadows neighborhood in Colorado Springs, Colo., June 29. Obama earlier declared a major disaster there and offered more assistance for the fire in which 347 homes have been destroyed. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A firefighter stands in rubble of the Mountain Shadows neighborhood on June 29. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Anita Jones, 92, is welcomed back to her assisted living home in Colorado Springs on June 29 after she and others had to evacuate three days earlier. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Firefighters get massages after coming off the fire line west of Colorado Springs on June 29. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The Mount Saint Francois area of Colorado Springs, burns on June 28. (Jeremy Lock / US Air Force via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Vandenberg Air Force Base Hot Shot firefighter Richard Strangeas looks out at his worksite on June 28, in the Mount Saint Francois area of Colorado Springs. His team cut a fire line. (Jeremy Lock / US Air Force via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Vandenberg Air Force Base Hot Shot fire fighter Chris Loung wipes sweat while cutting a fire line on June 28 in the Mount Saint Francois area. (Jeremy Lock / US Air Force via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Part of the scarred landscape left by the Waldo Canyon Fire outside Colorado Springs, Colo., is seen on June 28. Pikes Peak is in the background. Cooler temperatures and lighter winds helped firefighters but the blaze had already destroyed hundreds of homes and forced 35,000 people to flee. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Waldo Canyon Fire evacuee Renee Peterson and her daughter Darah, 7, listen to a news conference on June 28. (Mark Reis / The Colorado Springs Gazette via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. This home was among the hundreds lost in the Waldo Canyon Fire. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A C-130 Hercules aircraft from the 153rd Airlift Wing drops fire retardant on the Waldo Canyon Fre on June 27. (Stephany D. Richards / US Air Force via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire rises near the U.S. Air Force Academy's Cadet Chapel as cadets head for a briefing on evacuation procedures on June 27. The Academy evacuated more than 600 families and 110 dormitory residents from the base. (US Air Force via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Thick smoke rises from fires in the southernmost extremity of the Wyoming Range, as seen from the International Space Station on June 27. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Helicopters and even C-130s have bombarded the Waldo Canyon Fire with water and retardant. (Bryan Oller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Evacuees of the Waldo Canyon Fire are assisted by the Red Cross at the Cheyenne Mountain High School evacuation center on June 27. (Bryan Oller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Evacuees take shelter at Cheyenne Mountain High School on June 27. (Chris Schneider / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. An aerial view on June 27 shows homes destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire. (John Wark / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Kent Tinsley and his mother Miriam Tinsley unsuccessfully try to talk emergency personnel into letting them go to their home to get medical supplies for Miriam's husband, Herbert Tinsley, in Colorado Springs on June 27. (Chris Schneider / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. The Waldo Canyon Fire moved near these homes on June 26. (Bryan Oller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. A plume of smoke rises from the Waldo Canyon Fire on June 26. (John Wark / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Part the Waldo Canyon Fire moves into a subdivision north of Colorado Springs on June 26. (Gaylon Wampler / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire engulfs Interstate 25 north of Colorado Springs on June 26, causing traffic backups. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A man tries to evacuate a horse in Fairview, Utah, as the Wood Hollow Fire approached the town on June 26. A woman's body was found in the ashes of a house charred by the fast-moving fire. The blaze had already burned an estimated 30 homes and killed 75 sheep between the rural communities of Fountain Green and Indianola. (George Frey / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Smoke from the Wood Hollow Fire north of Fairview, Utah, is seen from Highway 89 on June 26. More than 500 structures have been threatened, forcing up to 1,500 people from homes. (George Frey / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Homes are destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire in the Mountain Shadows area northwest of Colorado Springs, on June 26. (Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Tammy Lance of Payson, Utah, swaddles a kitten after finding the litter alive under a burned-out truck near Mount Pleasant on June 25. The area was devastated by a wildfire that started on June 23. (Lynn DeBruin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. A stream of melted aluminum from a burned-out car is visible on June 25 near Mount Pleasant, Utah. A wildfire destroyed at least two dozen homes in the area and threatened 300 more. (Lynn DeBruin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. A wildfire burns just two miles from Helena, Mont. on June 25. Residents of more than 200 homes were forced to flee, and at least four homes were destroyed. (Matt Volz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. Volunteers serve lunch at the evacuation shelter at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs on June 25. (Bryan Oller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. People watch from Mesa Road as the wildfire continues to burn outside Colorado Springs on June 24. (Susannah Kay / The Colorado Springs Gazette via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Fire approaches homes near Saratoga Springs, Utah, on June 22. Several thousand homes were evacuated after high winds kicked up a fire caused by people firing guns for target practice. (Jeffrey D. Allred / The Deseret News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Little was left of this property on June 20 after the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, Colo., tore through. (Ed Andrieski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Nebraska National Guard crewmembers try to douse part of the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, Colo., on June 18. (Colorado National Guard via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. A helicopter drops water above the High Park Fire, about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo., on June 18. (Jess Geffre / Colorado National Guard via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. Forest burned by the Whitewater-Baldy Fire is seen on June 15 inside the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The fire was the largest in the state's history. (KC Shedden / U.S. Forest Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. A fire crew huddles at the Little Bear Fire in the Lincoln National Forest near Ruidoso, New Mexico, on June 13. Some 2,500 people were forced to evacuate their homes. (Kari Greer / U.S. Forest Service via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. Part of the High Park Fire flares up in the Roosevelt National Forest west of Fort. Collins on June 12. (Bob Pearson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. Tracy Greenwood embraces her daughter, Mariah, as they watch the High Park Fire burn near their home west of Fort Collins on June 11. (Ed Andrieski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. People watch the High Park Fire near Fort Collins on June 11. (Ed Andrieski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. Smoke fills the air over a barn, turning the sky orange, as the High Park Fire burns near Laporte, Colo., on June 10. (Marc Piscotty / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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