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Wildfire: Out of Control Flames Force Thousands From Their Homes in Colorado

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Rick Wilking / Reuters

Smoke from the Waldo Canyon fire engulfs the I-25 north of Colorado Springs, causing a traffic congestion, in Colorado June 26, 2012.

Summer, which officially began last week, has hit Colorado pretty hard—not, unfortunately, with beach days and lemonade, but with raging wildfires such as the Waldo Canyon inferno that has scorched some 6,200 acres of land since June 23 and displaced 32,000 from their homes on June 26.

Fueled by 100-degree temperatures, dryness, and strong winds from the prairies, the Waldo Canyon swelled rapidly on June 26 and jumped firefighters’ perimeter lines at the outskirts of Colorado Springs. The community suffered its first property loses from the flames as the wildfire consumed homes on the edge of the city and enveloped nearby areas in smoke and ash.

“This is the worst fire season in the history of Colorado,” Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper told Reuters on Wednesday.

PHOTOS: Wildfires Whip Through Colorado

Over the weekend, the fire generated a mushroom cloud of smoke that rose almost 20,000 feet over Colorado Springs near Pikes Peak. No neighborhoods near the edge of Pikes Peak had lost any homes – the fire only consumed a wooden tent platform.

But Pikes Peak, as the world’s second-most visited mountain, has felt the strain from the flames nonetheless. Authorities have closed the Pikes Peak highway as well as the Garden of the Gods Park, Pikes Peak Region’s most popular attraction. Traffic backed up for miles while service stations closed and left evacuees unable to fill up their cars. Around 11,000 residents in communities near the peak were evacuated from their homes over the weekend, though residents from Manitou Springs at the Pikes Peak base were allowed to return on Sunday night.

No one has pinned down the cause of the Waldo Canyon wildfire. But after this latest flare-up, firefighters are prepared for it to spread.

“If I gave acreage right now, it would be wrong in five minutes,” incident commander Rich Harvey told Reuters on Wednesday. “It’s growing.”

There are about a dozen fires currently burning across Colorado, like the two-week-old High Park Fire that has destroyed 257 homes and 87,250 acres in Rist, Poudre, Redstone and Buckhorn Canyons as of Tuesday. Some of the Poudre Park and Redstone Canyon residents were able to return to their property, but others with homes right in the middle of the damage may have to wait much longer before they can assess the damage. The High Park Fire – the second-largest fire on record in Colorado after the 2002 Hayman fire – includes in its casualties a 62-year-old grandmother in her mountain cabin, and has cost the state $31.5 million. And it’s not over yet: conditions are still dry and High Park’s perimeter is still growing, according to officials working the blaze.

MORE: The 6 Most Gripping Videos of the Colorado Wildfires

“It’s epic dryness, for at least the past 20 years,” incident commander of the High Park fire Beth Lund told the Loveland Reporter-Herald on Monday. Humidity levels rose a little bit over the weekend, but the area needs a major rain or snow event to help obliterate the blaze. Lund said the crew expects to have the fire contained by July 30.

Firefighters have a long way to go, though, with fires raging all over the interior west. “We’re going to be continuing to have to deal with these fires for weeks to come,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told Reuters. There are currently 29 active fires burning in U.S. states, and Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana in particular are under red flag warnings to indicate extreme fire danger.

Experts pin the flames down to extreme temperatures and dry winds. The nation is experiencing “a super-heated spike on top of a decades-long warming trend,” National Climatic Data Center head of climate monitoring Derek Arndt told the Associated Press on Wednesday.

But fire agency records indicate that the number of fires and damage thus far is still below the 10-year average for this time of the year. Hickenlooper insists that the blaze has not significantly affected Colorado’s tourism, and that the flames have affected only a half-percent of the states public lands and about 400 of its 10,000 campground sites.

MORE: Colorado Towns Cancel July 4th Fireworks Over Wildfire Danger

Tara Thean is a contributor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @tarathean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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