Colorado wildfire destroys hundreds of homes

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Associated Press + More

By P. SOLOMON BANDA and THOMAS PEIPERT, Associated Press

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 a more accurate account will be available later in the day of the damage from a blaze that has burned out of control for much of the week and forced more than 30,000 evacuees to frantically pack up belongings and flee.

[PHOTOS: Erratic Western Wildfires.]

The cause of the blaze remains unknown and local authorities said Thursday that conditions are too dangerous for any such investigation to begin. El Paso County sheriff's Lt. Jeff Kramer said that U.S. Forest Service agents are waiting for firefighting commanders to tell them when it's safe to enter the burned area.

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.

Colorado's Thursday weather forecast offered some hope for progress, 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.

An AP aerial photo taken Wednesday of one neighborhood showed 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.

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"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.