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AIR Worldwide : Colorado wildfire spreads

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According to catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide, a dangerous wildfire that started on June 23 in the Pike National Forest west of Colorado Springs, CO (estimated population of more than 400,000 as of 2010) increased significantly in size overnight, prompting officials to order the mandatory evacuation of 32,000 residents. As of Wednesday morning, the Waldo Canyon Fire has burned more than 15,000 acres (23 square miles) and is currently just 5% contained, according to the Colorado State Forest Service. The cause is still under investigation.

The Waldo Canyon Fire continues to grow in size on its northern and eastern flank, advancing rapidly toward densely populated communities. On Tuesday night, flames jumped firefighter containment lines into foothill neighborhoods. Recent reports show many homes in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood consumed by flames, but officials have not yet indicated the number of structures destroyed. Evacuations issued by the City of Colorado Springs are in effect for much of northwestern Colorado Springs west of I-25, including the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“More than 700 firefighting personnel are battling the blaze, with support from several heavy air tankers. The extreme terrain, strong and erratic winds, and record-setting heat complicate operations,” said Dr. Tomas Girnius, senior scientist at AIR Worldwide. “The weather forecast for the next several days indicates temperatures in the 90s (following nearly a week of 100-plus degree temperatures) with little chance of rain, and officials have characterized the fire’s growth potential as “extreme”. The date of containment is estimated to be July 16th.”

Dr. Girnius continued, “Prime fire conditions—including gusty winds, very high temperatures in the triple digits, and persistently dry conditions—have contributed to an active start to the wildfire season in the interior of the Western United States. Colorado officials have called this the worst fire season to date, with several active fires burning across the state. A fire that started earlier this month, the High Park Fire, consumed more than 87,000 acres, making it the second largest in Colorado history. That fire is located near Fort Collins, CO, and has destroyed more than 250 homes. It is currently estimated to be 65% contained.”

According to AIR, other notable blazes this month include the Little Bear Fire in New Mexico, which burned 44,000 acres and destroyed more than 250 structures, and the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, which at nearly 300,000 acres is the largest in the state’s history. In Utah, the Wood Hollow Fire consumed more than 45,000 acres and destroyed 50 structures.