Firestorm: The Waldo Canyon Fire

The Waldo Canyon Fire was sparked on Saturday afternoon, June 23, 2012. Over the next three days, it scorched more than 18,000 acres and destroyed 346 homes in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs, Colorado. On June 26, the fire became the most destructive in terms of property value in Colorado history. There were two fatalities. At one point, approximately 32,000 people were evacuated from the fire’s path. There were no lightning strikes the day the fire started. An investigation into the cause continues as of this writing.

Saturday evening, a friend who is married to a firefighter in the Colorado Springs Fire Department posted on Facebook that she was evacuating. As her home is east of mine, with the fire to the west, after speaking with her on the phone, I decided her caution was something I should pay attention to. Other friends in Woodland Park, a mountain town about 18 miles west of Colorado Springs, called to offer refuge in the event I wanted to voluntarily evacuate. So I decided to take them up on their offer, packed my computer, hard drives, backups and camera gear, along with a suitcase, and headed for the hills!

Following fire engines on the way out of Colorado Springs, flames were clearly visible to the north of Cave of the Winds off of Highway 24. The firefighters exited at Manitou Springs while I proceeded west into Ute Pass, a narrow canyon, with flames directly overhead on the northeast side of the highway. The following morning (Sunday, June 24), as anticipated, Highway 24 was closed. The photo gallery in this post begins on that morning, as easterly winds had blown flames and smoke west towards Woodland Park.

Note: Photos identified with (Mobile) are from a Droid RAZR cell phone
while the others are from a Nikon D300

6.24.12 - Waldo Canyon Fire: View of Pikes Peak from Woodland Park (Mobile)
6.24.12: Pikes Peak from Woodland Park (Mobile)

A day later (Monday, June 25), winds continued shifting, blowing everything east over the plains for most of the day, before shifting again that evening and blowing everything to the north.

6.25.12 - Waldo Canyon Fire: View of Pikes Peak from Woodland Park (Mobile)
6.25.12: Pikes Peak from Woodland Park (Mobile)

Waking Tuesday morning (June 26), having been lulled by blue skies the day before, brought a false sense of confidence that things were getting under control. And with news in the morning incident briefing that USAF C-130 MAFFS aircraft from Peterson Air Force Base would be contributing to the firefight, I decided to head back to Colorado Springs. Because of the continuing closure of Highway 24, this decision necessitated taking a 150 mile detour through the 10 year-old Hayman Fire Burn Area (previous blog post) and on through Deckers to Denver, before turning south back to Colorado Springs. The smoke plume from the fire was clearly visible from Deckers, approximately 40 miles north of the fire.

6.26.12 - 12:55pm - Waldo Canyon Fire: View From Deckers
6.26.12 – 12:55pm: View from Deckers

Upon arrival in Denver, it was 110 degrees, not in Las Vegas … Denver!

As you enter Colorado Springs from the north on Interstate 25, there is an overlook providing a grand view of the U.S. Air Force Academy with the majestic Pikes Peak in the background. On this fateful afternoon, arriving at 3:25pm, the scene was quite different!

3:27:22pm - Waldo Canyon Fire: Prelude to a Firestorm
3:27:22pm: Prelude to a Firestorm

Firefighting helicopters were using the Academy grounds as a base for refueling and refilling their water tanks with which to fight the fire. I believe the air traffic control tower at the Academy (visible in the photo above) was also being utilized to coordinate the emergency aircraft.

3:40:46pm - Waldo Canyon Fire: Sikorsky S-64 Firefighting Helicopter
3:40:46pm: Sikorsky S-64 Firefighting Helicopter

By 4pm, it was clear the fire was raging. I decided I should head home and evaluate the situation from there.

3:57:15pm - Waldo Canyon Fire: Smoke Fills The Sky
3:57:15pm: Smoke Fills The Sky

Upon arriving home at 4:30pm, the fire appeared to be cresting the ridge on the west side of Colorado Springs. Thinking back to my conversation with the firefighter’s wife the Saturday evening before, that was a signal she had told me her husband said to watch out for. However, fires usually move downhill slowly. They can race uphill, but not normally downhill. Having lived in Southern California, where “fire season” is an annual event, I was also aware that fires can move as quickly as 40 to 60 miles per hour when they get whipped into a frenzy. So I seriously debated whether to unload my truck as I photographed the scene from a hillside above my home.

With what I thought was more distance between where I live and where it appeared to be burning, it seemed impossible that flames would burn through a couple of miles of residential neighborhood and across Centennial Blvd., which appeared to be built wide enough to serve as a fire break. So I made the uncomfortable decision to unload the truck and set up my computer, taking breaks to head back up the hillside and check on the fire’s progress, and take more photos. At 4:45pm, the fire was still on the mountainside, the helicopters had shifted from fighting the fire to the south to the area directly to my west, and from where the flames were, it appeared they would rage uphill and head further to the north.

4:45:01pm - Waldo Canyon Fire: Firefighting Helicopters
4:45:01pm: Firefighting Helicopters

At 5pm, something the incident commander later said he had never witnessed before, the fire column collapsed. The wind had been blowing from the east, from my back towards the mountain. Instead of the heat from the fire creating an updraft and carrying flames, smoke and cinders aloft, there was a 65mph outflow that swept through the Mountain Shadows subdivision and engulfed my perch reducing visibility to less than 200 feet in a matter of minutes. I was hit square in the face with a blast of wind, heat, smoke, ash and cinders directly out of the west. Daylight turned to an eerie orange glow. The only way to describe the sensation is that this must be what getting hit with a pyroclastic blast from a volcano feels like, on a much smaller scale. Staring into that cloud, it was impossible to tell if flames were right behind it!

5:18:00pm - Waldo Canyon Fire: Fire Column Collapse (Mobile)
5:18:00pm: Fire Column Collapse (Mobile)

Upon going back inside, I discovered my face was covered with ash. I got back on the computer, managed to make two quick posts on Facebook, then my Internet connection went out. I called my ISP to see if they knew what the problem was, and their answer was no. I felt I knew. I also felt it was time to reload the truck!

By 8:15pm, the winds had shifted yet again, blowing the smoke cloud to the south, and it was clear that homes in Mountain Shadows were being ravaged by the fire. I learned later that the fire was less than a mile and a half from where I stood to take this photo.

8:17:10pm - Waldo Canyon Fire: Firestorm Engulfs Mountain Shadows
8:17:10pm: Firestorm Engulfs Mountain Shadows

Click the thumbnails below
to view full-size photos

On June 26, the Waldo Canyon Fire more than tripled in size, growing from 4500 acres the night before to more than 15,600 acres in a single day. The map below was provided by Incident Command charting the day-by-day growth of the Waldo Canyon Fire.  The explosive growth of the fire on June 26, 2012 is clearly visible.  As of 8pm Mountain Daylight Time on July 10, 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire was declared 100% contained.

7.5.12 - Waldo Canyon Fire: Map of the Burn Area
7.5.12: Map of the Waldo Canyon Fire

Additional Resources:

Production Notes: Unless a caption includes (Mobile) denoting captured with a Driod RAZR cell phone, all other photos were captured using a Nikon D300. Some photos were shot with a Nikkor 24-120mm zoom lens, but the majority were shot with a Nikkor 80-400mm zoom. Scroll down while viewing photos in the Photo Gallery above to see aperture, focal length and shutter speed. All Nikon photos were captured in RAW format and processed using Adobe Camera RAW Converter and Adobe Photoshop CS5.5. Part of this shoot provides a good lesson in why to shoot RAW format as for a portion of the afternoon, I blew the settings and the RAW captures were not optimal. All photos were handheld as my tripod … was packed in the truck due to the evacuation!

Photos and Text are © 2012 Lee Roth / Roth Stock Digital Media – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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