A raging wildfire has destroyed dozens of houses and charred land on the edges of the Air Force Academy, while thick smoke and intense, towering flames kept officials from learning the full scope of damage to Colorado's second-largest city.
The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 72 square kilometres, and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents, Colorado Springs emergency management director Brett Waters said.
Among those urgently evacuated on Tuesday evening were residents at the US Air Force Academy.
The fire burned about four hectares of land along the southwest boundary of the academy's 72.5-square-kilometre boundary, but no injuries or damage to academy structures have been reported.
Steve Cox, an aide to Mayor Steve Bach, said on 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 signalling another home lost to the Waldo Canyon Fire, which is the No.1 priority for US firefighters.
The White House said President Barack Obama would tour the fire area on Friday.
"It was like looking at the worst movie set you could imagine," Governor John Hickenlooper said after flying over the 23-square-kilometre fire late on Tuesday.
"It's almost surreal. You look at that, and it's like nothing I've seen before."
Flames crested a ridge above the scenic Air Force Academy campus on Tuesday, and the school told more than 2200 residents to evacuate 600 households in one housing area.
About 90 firefighters from the academy and nearby fire departments were battling the encroaching flames.
It wasn't immediately clear how close the fire was to the academy's signature building, the aluminum, glass and steel Cadet Chapel.
The chapel dorms, classrooms and other central buildings are clustered in the northwest quadrant of the campus.
"The cadets are safe," Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, the academy superintendent, said.
Thunderstorms are expected near the blaze on Wednesday afternoon, but incident commander Rich Harvey says they could bring unpredictable winds that would hinder firefighters' efforts near the city of 419,000 people.
The fire is about five per cent contained, Harvey said.
Throughout the interior West, firefighters have toiled for days in searing, record-setting heat against fires fuelled by prolonged drought.
Most, if not all, of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana were under red flag warnings, meaning extreme fire danger.
The nation is experiencing "a super-heated spike on top of a decades-long warming trend", said Derek Arndt, head of climate monitoring at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.