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Firestorm of epic proportions – at least 32 000 evacuated as wind-fueled wildfire continues, Colorado

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A wind-fueled wildfire that started on Saturday reached epic proportions, breached fire lines Tuesday, June 26, 2012, and entered Colorado Springs, Colorado, causing at least 32 000 people to be evacuated in the area and at the U.S. Air Force Academy, authorities said.

"The fire conditions could not be worse," said Anne Rys-Sikora, spokeswoman for a multiagency fire response team. "It is like a convection oven out there." Residents of the North Mountain Shadows and Peregrine communities in Colorado Springs were ordered to leave their homes, authorities said. Multiple structures in North Mountain Shadows were being affected by the Waldo Canyon Fire, officials said Tuesday night.

Colorado Springs set a record high of 101 on Tuesday as firefighters contended with brutal conditions, including ash falling on highways and neighborhoods. Officials rushed in crews and aerial equipment in a bid to slow the fire. The 6,200-acre fire remained only 5% contained.

Officials labeled it as exhibiting "extreme fire behavior." A grim weather forecast for the rest of the week left residents concerned. "The fire is moving," said Rys-Sikora.

The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs issued an evacuation order for about 700 residents in its Pine Valley Housing and 1,400 in Douglass Valley Housing, said public affairs officer John Van Winkle. The academy's powered flight, glider and parachuting operations were called off Saturday so that the U.S. Forest Service could use runways for helicopters used to fight fires along Colorado's Front Range, Van Winkle said. The academy's Class of 2016, all 1,045 cadets, will arrive today.

Town hall meetings about the Waldo Canyon Fire have drawn hundreds of concerned Colorado Springs residents. "It's one thing to hear of wildfires," said Van Winkle. "it's another to see it from a stop sign and from the back yard." Dave Barjenbruch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Boulder, said the past week has been hellish across Colorado. "Even in the foothills, where most of the fires are going on, most days have been in the single-digit humidity," he told CNN.

Thunderstorms such as the one that fed the Waldo Canyon Fire on Tuesday are heavy on fire-feeding gusty winds and low on much-needed rainfall, Barjenbruch said. The forecast for Colorado Springs and much of the state doesn't look encouraging, said Barjenbruch. "Things don't look like they are in a hurry to change here," he said.

Colorado wildfires had consumed 181 426 acres by Wednesday afternoon, according to the Colorado Division of Emergency Management.

The largest of the fires was the High Park Fire, which began June 9 and has now consumed 87,284 acres, the U.S. Forest Service said. It was 65% contained Wednesday. The total number of homes burned stood at 257. An estimated $33.1 million has been spent trying to contain the blaze.

Across the United States, hundreds of heat records have fallen in the past week.  From the wildfire-consumed Rocky Mountains to the bacon-fried sidewalks of Oklahoma, the temperatures are creating catastrophic consequences.

In the past week, 1 011 records have been broken around the country, including 251 new daily high temperature records on Tuesday.

Dry and hot summer has only just begun. The fire, fueled by high winds and hot, arid weather conditions, could be raging for some time to come.

Sources: RSOE, CNNwashingtonpost.com

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