Fire Forces Air Force Academy to Evacuate

A slurry bomber drops retardant on the Waldo Canyon fire on a ridge above Queen's Canyon in Colorado Springs, Colo., where firefighters are battling to keep the blaze from reaching the Air Force Academy and residential areas.

Army combat engineers rushed to stop a major wildfire that left tens of thousands of people homeless, from consuming the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

The military school for officer candidates relocated about 550 cadets off academy grounds Wednesday night, 200 new cadets were moved to the University of Colorado's Colorado Springs campus and 350 moved in with local sponsor families, the Army said.

Commanders suspended all training programs as an engineer battalion from the Army's Fort Carson near Colorado Springs scrambled to build fire breaks around the 18,500-acre school's boundaries.

The Army, which initially committed 121 troops, along with construction and demolition equipment, to helping the Academy -- said in a statement Fort Carson would devote as much resources as it had to fighting the Waldo Canyon fire, which doubled in size Wednesday and blackened more than 30 square miles by Thursday morning.

An aerial photograph taken Wednesday and published in The Denver Post Thursday showed approximately 300 homes, all of them inside the Colorado Springs city limits, evidently reduced to charred rubble.

Colorado Springs authorities would not confirm exact numbers, saying they were still making assessments and devising a way to convey the information to affected homeowners.

A firefighter told The (Colorado Springs) Gazette that crews learned during a briefing Wednesday that 200 to 300 homes had been lost.

He said it was difficult to be accurate about the number since the devastation was so complete it was impossible to even make out addresses.

More than 32,500 people have been forced to evacuate, including from the Air Force Academy.

Several nearby neighborhoods outside Colorado Springs were placed on pre-evacuation orders as fire managers closely watched the forecast.

Temperatures were expected to be in the upper 90s Fahrenheit Thursday after hovering around 100 since the fire broke Saturday.

AccuWeather said there was a slight chance of a brief thunderstorm around 5 p.m. MDT (7 p.m. EDT). The Weather Channel said it would simply be cloudy.

A thousand firefighters battled the blaze, which is only 5 percent contained and one of four major fires burning in Colorado. Dozens of other forest fires burned across the West.

More than half of the nation's federal wildfire fighting resources were in Colorado, which has been wrestling with its worst fire season in a decade, powered by dry conditions and heat.

The White House said President Barack Obama would tour the affected area Friday.

The FBI is helping local authorities figure out what started the blaze, the FBI said.

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