COLORADO SPRINGS (Reuters) - A wildfire raging near some of Colorado's most popular tourist sites grew suddenly more ferocious on Tuesday, forcing 32,000 people from their homes, prompting evacuations from the U.S. Air Force Academy and swallowing numerous houses at the edge of Colorado Springs.
From the vantage point of a command post about 10 miles (16 km) from the path of advancing flames, the entire community of Mountain Shadows, a northwest subdivision, appeared to be enveloped in an orange glow after dark.
"This is a fire of epic proportions," Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown said as ash drifted down on the city, sirens wailed and the thick smell of smoke permeated the air.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper flew into the city Tuesday night by helicopter to meet with fire commanders and tour the fire zone first-hand. He noted that the blaze was one of at least a dozen burning throughout the state. Four people have died in Colorado wildfires so far this year.
"This is the worst fire season in the history of Colorado," he said during an impromptu news conference, adding that from the air he saw many homes destroyed in a glowing landscape that looked "surreal."
The Waldo Canyon Fire, which has roared through at least 6,200 acres of dry timber since Saturday, has grabbed attention for days because of its proximity to landmarks like the famed mountaintop of Pikes Peak and the Air Force Academy.
The blaze claimed its first property losses on Tuesday as wind-driven flames swept over containment lines into Colorado's second-most populous city, consuming an unknown number of homes on the town's outskirts as authorities hurried to evacuate residents.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said 32,000 people had been evacuated, and an Air Force Academy spokesman said the evacuation zone included two communities of single-family homes on academy grounds housing civilian and military personnel and their families.
"We are in a very critical situation now. Unfortunately we do have structures and homes that are burning in the northwest corner of Colorado Springs. We have mandatory evacuation over a considerable area," fire information officer Rob Deyerberg told Reuters.
A mushroom cloud of gray, black and brown smoke, topped by billowing, white cumulus clouds, rose nearly 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) into the sky and hung over the area as residents scrambled to heed evacuation orders.
The sudden closure of service stations along with other businesses, leaving fleeing motorists unable to fill up their cars, added to a sense of urgency as roads filled with traffic.
Columns of vehicles carrying evacuees and hastily packed belongings stretched bumper-to-bumper for miles, crawling slowly southward out of town along Interstate 25.
Closer to the blaze, which has been fanned by winds blowing into the southern Rockies from the prairies to the east, trees were visibly twisting from the heat of the flames.
"It's a very hostile environment out there," fire information officer Anne Rys-Sikora said.
Asked how quickly the fire was spreading after the latest flare-up on Tuesday afternoon, incident commander Rich Harvey said, "If I gave acreage right now, it would be wrong in five minutes. It's growing."
Hickenlooper said he was consulting with Pentagon officials. The Air Force Academy issued a statement saying the military was preparing to dispatch up to 25 more helicopters to join the firefighting effort.
Authorities earlier said that half of the fleet of eight Air Force C-130 cargo planes equipped as air tankers were already at work, dropping flame-retardant chemicals over the blaze.
DEATH IN UTAH
Still, the Waldo Canyon Fire, burning primarily within the Pike National Forest on the western fringe of Colorado City, was dwarfed in size by wildfires elsewhere across the state, and by a fatal blaze that flared with renewed intensity in Utah.
Authorities said on Tuesday a body was found in the ashes the fast-moving Wood Hollow Fire about 100 miles (161 km) south of Salt Lake City, marking the first fatality in a blaze that has scorched over 39,000 acres (15,780 hectares) of rolling hills covered by parched cheat grass and sagebrush.
Flames fanned by high winds into a second county forced the closure of Utah's state Route 89 for a second time and prompted the evacuation of the entire town of Fairview, a community of more than 1,200 residents according to the latest census, state emergency managers said.
The blaze already has leveled an estimated 30 homes and killed 75 sheep, authorities said.
The Wood Hollow Fire is believed to be one of just two western wildfires that have claimed lives in recent weeks.
The other is the High Park Fire near Fort Collins, Colorado, north of Denver, which now ranks as that state's second-largest blaze on record and its most destructive ever, having consumed 87,250 acres (35,308 hectares) in steep mountain canyons since it was sparked by lightning two weeks ago.
The High Park has destroyed 248 homes and killed a 62-year-old grandmother, whose body was found in the ashes of her cabin, while leaving an estimated 4,300 residents displaced by evacuations.
Colorado accounts for several of the 29 large active wildfires being fought across the country on Tuesday. The bulk of them were in seven western states -- Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and California, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, reported.
Although federal authorities say the fire season got off to an early start in parts of the northern Rockies, the number of fires and acreage burned nationwide is still below the 10-year average for this time of year, according to fire agency records.
(Additional reporting by Ellen Miller in Grand Junction, Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City and Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho. Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Lisa Shumaker and David Brunnstrom)