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Academy continues mission in face of Waldo Canyon Fire
An ominous cloud of smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire rises from the south behind the Air Force Academy's Cadet Chapel as cadets head for a briefing on evacuation procedures June 27, 2012. The Academy evacuated more than 600 families and 110 dormitory residents from the base the evening of June 27. (U.S. Air Force photo/Carol Lawrence)
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 Waldo Canyon Fire Info
Academy presses on in face of Waldo Canyon fire

Posted 6/28/2012   Updated 6/28/2012 Email story   Print story


by Don Branum
Air Force Academy Public Affairs

6/28/2012 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Academy staff members' mindset can probably best be captured in the now-famous 1939 poster: "Keep Calm and Carry On."

Inprocessing and Basic Cadet Training began as scheduled even after more than 600 families living on base and 110 dormitory residents evacuated due to the explosive Waldo Canyon Fire, which has now claimed as many as 300 homes and more than 18,500 acres of forest between Colorado Springs and Woodland Park, Colo.

Part of that fire spread to the southwest portion of the Air Force Academy Wednesday, burning about 10 acres before firefighters with the 10th Civil Engineer Squadron quickly contained it.

"This is absolutely the worst wildfire I've ever seen," said Ernst Piercy, the Academy's fire chief. "Essentially, this fire represents one of the most difficult fires in many years here in Colorado."

In addition to families and dormitory residents, more than 600 cadets have been relocated as a result of the fire. Approximately 375 were released to their sponsor families due to the suspension of summer airmanship and other programs while the Academy airfield supports helicopter staging operations. Another 200 cadets are taking summer session courses at the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs. Those displaced by the evacuation must log into the Air Force Personnel Accountability and Assessment System at https://afpaas.af.mil to update their location.

Officials moved inprocessing reception to the Cadet Field House from Doolittle Hall because the Cadet Area is considered the safest location on the Academy due to the lack of combustible materials. Col. Tim Gibson, the 10th Air Base Wing commander, issued a stop movement order for 96 hours or until further notice for service members with permanent-change-of-station orders to the Academy.

The Waldo Canyon fire is the very scenario for which firefighting units around the state have prepared. But even that planning couldn't prepare them for a firestorm June 26 that leapt two ridges and breached the Colorado Springs city limits. Fueled by 65-mph winds, the blaze consumed a swath of homes in the Mountain Shadows subdivision on the city's northwest side. Also destroyed was the Flying W Ranch, an iconic attraction built in the 1930s.

As of Thursday, approximately 1,000 firefighters from around the country were postured to prevent the fire from destroying more structures. That includes the Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., based "Hot Shots," the Defense Departments only wildland firefighting asset. The Hot Shots unit was created after the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire in California killed four people, according to the Santa Maria Times, which reported that the unit faces budget cuts for the 2013 fiscal year.

"These guys will be on the front lines of this wildfire using their training regarding wildfires and urban interface to save lives and structures," said Vandenberg AFB Fire Chief Mark Farias.

Hot Shots Superintendent Jesse Hendricks explained that firefighters use "structure triage" in urban interfaces threatened by wildfire. The team first removes fuel sources from around structures using hand tools, then burns a controlled fire around the structures to deprive the wildfire of fuel near homes.

"We all got into the mindset that this is going to be a nasty situation," Hendricks said. "When we go into any wildfire, we ... recall similar wildfires and pull from those lessons learned so that we will be more effective."

On the Academy, 10th CES crews and Soldiers with Fort Carson's 4th and 52nd Engineer Battalions have established fire breaks along the base's southern side.

"Our best chance for success is to use both natural and man-made barriers," Piercy said. "We've cut a lot of dozer lines, we've removed a lot of excess brush from the area that's affected, and we have an anchor point using air drops, repellants and break points."

Also contributing crews and assets to the Waldo Canyon fire are Air Force Space Command and the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, the Wyoming Air National Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing, the 50th Space Wing at Schriever AFB, the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., and local cities and counties.

Academy officials will continue to provide up-to-date information through Twitter, Facebook and the Academy's public website.

(Information compiled from Air Force News Service, 30th Space Wing and staff reports.)

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