FROM THE ARCHIVES: Waldo Canyon Fire destroys homes; thousands displaced

Homes are destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows are of Colorado Springs, Colorado on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED TUESDAY, JUNE 26, 2012: It was a sight no one in Colorado Springs could have ever imagined seeing Tuesday evening.

Sunny streets suddenly turned black as gigantic plumes of smoke took over the city, chunks of ash raining down.

And for residents on the northwest side of town, the horrifying sight of flames in their rearview mirror as thousands tried to flee their homes before the Waldo Canyon Fire turned their beloved neighborhoods into an inferno.

"It was like living inside a horror movie," was how one resident put it, echoing the sentiments of an entire community facing what seemed unthinkable just hours before: a devastating fire reaching Colorado Springs.

The mountains on the northwest side of town turned orange as flames continued their march into town. A number of evacuating residents remarked later that there were moments they feared for their lives, trapped in bottleneck traffic while fast-moving flames closed in.

When the terrifying ordeal eased up, 32,000 people were left temporarily displaced. An unknown number of those were left homeless after the fire destroyed their home. The fire continues to burn in the Mountain Shadows area Wednesday morning, preventing firefighters from going in and assessing the damage. This has left evacuees with no choice but to wait to find out whether or not they still have a home.

More than 20,000 residences and 160 commercial structures remain threatened Wednesday morning.

The Flying W Ranch, a staple of Colorado Springs for almost 60 years, burned to the ground. A popular tourist attraction, people around the country took to Facebook to comment on how heartbroken they were over the news.

"It makes me cry," a woman from Texas said.

Tuesday morning, the fire remained out of Queens Canyon and a relatively safe distance from homes. The fire tested established containment lines around Cascade and the Cedar Heights subdivision, but held.

Firefighters stressed that it was vital that the fire stay out of the canyon, as it would threaten a number of neighborhoods and the Air Force Academy if it burned through. Tuesday morning, that seemed a remote enough possibility that a number of evacuated residents were allowed back into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood to retrieve belongings.

What changed was a perfect storm of record breaking heat, strong winds, dry air and dry fuel, all of which combined to push the Waldo Canyon Fire into Queens Canyon.

"We had a very difficult day," said Incident Commander Rich Harvey. "The fire was able to breach our primary and secondary containment lines."

Once inside the canyon, the fire blew through it, soon becoming an immediate threat to homes in the neighborhoods east of Rockrimmon. Evacuation orders were expanded late Tuesday afternoon north to the Air Force Academy, south to Garden of the Gods Road and east to I-25. That later expanded further south to Fillmore west of Centennial and a strip of Fontanero between Mesa Road and North 30th.

The idea that hotels and businesses along I-25 would ever be forced to evacuate the fire seemed implausible only hours before it actually happened, said 11 News anchor Don Ward.

Then the sky turned orange and black as flames lapped over the mountains and began engulfing homes. Horrified residents throughout the city took to social media: posting photographs of the unbelievable sight of flames towering over neighborhoods and smoke clouds draping the Air Force Academy, and begging for prayers.

Facebook and Twitter also lit up with photographs and real-time videos from residents fleeing evacuated areas. As structures began to burn, heartbreaking statuses began to pop up from people speculating that their homes were gone.

"All the bright spots ... when you got closer you saw they were people's homes," said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper upon arriving in Colorado Springs Tuesday night.

"This is a firestorm of epic proportions," Colorado Springs Fire Chief Richard Brown said.

Brown stressed that though homes were lost, firefighting efforts allowed others to be saved.

"We are saving many, many homes ... we are triaging homes," Brown said.

Officials say if one house is fully involved, firefighters work to save the houses surrounding it.

As of 11 p.m. Tuesday, the fire has burned at least 6,200 acres, a number that could likely change after Wednesday morning's press conference. It's 5 percent contained. Highway 24 remains closed, but the fire has not jumped the highway. Residents of Crystal Park were allowed to return home, the only evacuation order lifted Tuesday.