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Colo. Wildfires Require Huge Amounts Of Resources


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Fully half of the nation's wildfire fighting resources are at work this morning in Colorado. Drought and winds are fueling several massive fires there. Right now, the most dangerous is the Waldo Canyon Fire, burning on the edge of Colorado Springs. While officials haven't confirmed how many homes have been destroyed, the Denver Post estimates from an aerial photo that about 300 have been lost. Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports details about where the fire has been and where it's going are hard to pin down.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: There's one word people in Colorado Springs keep using to describe living with this fire - apocalyptic. That's the word occurred to Sarah Safranek(ph) as she and her family fled the fire, along with the entire northwest side of the city. It was a scene out of some end-times disaster movie.

SARAH SAFRANEK: It was bumper to bumper. The smoke made it look as if it were, you know, nine o'clock at night. It was scary. We were all moving together out.

VERLEE: The authorities haven't started telling people exactly which homes have burned yet, but Safranek knows even if her house is still standing, the neighborhood she knew is gone.

SAFRANEK: It'll be hard to fully come to terms with until I guess I see it, but, yeah, I mean, it sounds like we're all pretty much - we've lost our homes. So...

VERLEE: The fire ripped into the Safranek's neighborhood on the western edge of the city during a blow-up earlier this week, and conditions have hardly let up since then. But neither, says incident commander Rich Harvey, have firefighters.

RICH HARVEY: It's been house-to-house, door-to-door, street-to-street, hill-to-hill kind of activity all night long. It's continued all day today.

VERLEE: A lot of that fighting's been happening near the U.S. Air Force Academy, which is also evacuated. Bad news for the 1,000 new students who were supposed to check-in this week. At a briefing yesterday, Harvey brought along a map to explain why this fire's been so hard to fight - color-coded blobs described each day's burn area. And each day, shifting winds have pushed the fire in a different direction, leaving firefighters scrambling to reposition.

HARVEY: I've been doing this for a long time and I have never seen a progression map look like that.

VERLEE: Those shifting winds forced new evacuations Wednesday. Officials are telling people in the path of the fire to grab their Ps and get out. Ps? People, pets, prescriptions, paperwork, and pictures. Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey says after some frightening scenes earlier this week, residents are finally starting to heed evacuation orders.

PETER CAREY: I think yesterday was a really big wakeup call on the danger of fire and the quickness in which it can put you in jeopardy, or your family. So that's what we're dealing with.

VERLEE: I'm standing on a hillside opposite the Waldo Canyon Fire. It's Wednesday evening and the winds have calmed down for now. The smoke is rising thin like mist out of the canyons. That's good news for fire crews hoping to make progress tonight. They got more good news earlier today. I was sitting in a coffee shop when the women in the booth next to me started shouting.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's raining. We need this. This is a gift. Someone's been doing some nice dancing.

VERLEE: Lots of people in this cafe were keenly interested in that rain, because many of them are evacuees. They spent the day glued to phones and computers, looking for information and trading news with friends. Dave Williams was trying to using his booth as a desk, because his regular office is behind the fire lines, but he wasn't getting a lot done.

DAVE WILLIAMS: You can't even plan on what your next move is because, you know, you can't get to your vital records. So what are you going to do? You know, what's backed up? What isn't backed up? What kind of access do we have to it?

VERLEE: Williams' business partner, Jim Holly had even bigger concerns. His home is in the fire zone.

JIM HOLLY: Hopefully, it doesn't burn down. I don't even what to think about what is the next step if it burns down until it happens, you know.

VERLEE: Holly may be in suspense for a while longer. Officials say it could be days before the Waldo Canyon Fire is controlled enough to make a thorough assessment of what's been lost.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee in Colorado Springs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.