Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Up to 32,000 Evacuated As Massive Wildfire Bears Down on Colorado Springs; Airborne Firefighting Capabilities At Low Ebb With Dwindling Fleet

**UPDATE- 6/27**- The Denver Post is reporting that FBI agents are on the ground in El Paso County, CO to determine if the Waldo Canyon Fire was the result of criminal activity.
Authorities have so far not even said whether they believe the blaze is human or naturally caused. But a string of fires set by an apparent serial arsonist in neighboring Teller County have caused rumors to swirl that the Waldo Canyon Fire could be the work of the same individual.

On Wednesday, El Paso County Sheriff's spokesman Jeff Kramer said, despite the rumors, there is no person of interest. Investigators are taking tips from anyone who may know what happened in Waldo Canyon.
On Tuesday evening, somebody left an anonymous post on the Colorado Springs Craigslist page claiming that the Waldo Canyon fire was in fact arson and they had witnessed the person responsible setting fires.

As firefighters braved triple-digit temperatures in Colorado's Front Range an out of control wildfire encroaching on western neighborhoods of Colorado Springs, CO and the campus of the US Air Force Academy has been deemed too dangerous to fully assess the damage so far.
The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles, and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents, Colorado Springs emergency management director Brett Waters said. The fire burned about 10 acres of land along the southwest boundary of the academy's 28-square-mile boundary, but no injuries or damage to academy structures have been reported.

Steve Cox, an aide to Mayor Steve Bach, said Wednesday morning that the blaze has consumed dozens of houses elsewhere. A more precise figure wasn't available because of the intensity of the fire.

Heavy smoke and ash billowed from the mountain foothills west of the city. Bright yellow and orange flames flared in the night, often signaling another home lost to the Waldo Canyon Fire, which is the No. 1 priority for the nation's firefighters.
On Wednesday morning, the Waldo Canyon fire- the second biggest to strike Colorado in a decade- was estimated at only 5% containment. The fire started on June 23rd in an area about 10 miles northwest of Colorado Springs. Since then, firefighters have been hampered by high temperatures and the remote terrain which the Waldo Canyon started out in.

Included among the 32,000 evacuees in the mandatory evacuation order are personnel from the United States Air Force Academy. As of Wednesday morning, there was no word on whether or not an incoming class of 1,045 cadets would report as scheduled on Thursday.

The Waldo Canyon fire is one of a half dozen wildfires burning throughout Colorado this summer, with others scorching mountains and forests to the west of Boulder and Ft Collins, CO. Earlier this month, the High Park fire burned down nearly 200 homes and was responsible for the death of a 62 year old woman. The High Park fire was reportedly sparked by a lightning strike on June 9 and officials reported it was at 65% containment on Wednesday morning.

In the past decade, the total number of fixed wing firefighting aircraft at the US Forest Service's disposal has been reduced from 44 to 9 after two planes crashed in Nevada and Utah this month. Two of the pilots in Nevada were killed when their converted P2V tanker crashed into remote terrain near the Nevada-Utah border on June 3rd. That same day, another P2V tanker was taken out of comission after making a crash-landing when the landing gear wouldn't deploy.

While legislation authorizing the updating or adding to the nation's fleet of firefighting aircraft has enjoyed bipartisan support from lawmakers in recent years- particularly those representing Western states- Washington has been slow to act.

Federally approved contractors haven't fared much better. Within the last year, federal regulators ordered California-based Aero Union to cease operations at during massive wildfires in central Texas due to unspecified safety violations. Within weeks of the shutdown, Aero Union had filed for bankruptcy and was looking to auction off its assets.

Ealier this month, President Obama signed a bill rushed through the House and Senate that would hasten the addition of seven additional aerial tankers to the US Airborne firefighting inventory. However, these aircraft aren't expected to be ready for delivery until another two months.

To at least temporarily bridge the gap, a number of National Guard C-130s have been specially fitted to drop water or fire retardant and a trio of CV-580 twin engine air tankers loaned from Canada's Interagency Forest Fire Centre have been pressed into service or are on standby. The National Guard C-130s are severely restricted due to byzantine regulations regarding the ability for fight fire from the air.

Oregon-based Evergreen Aviation boasts an aerial tanker that uses a Boeing 747 platform and claims is can hold more than 20,000 gallons of water or fire retardant. Evergreen's 747 Supertanker had previously been deployed to fight wildfires in California, Arizona and Israel in recent years.

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