Colo. Wildfire Sends Residents to Shelters

PHOTO: An aerial view of the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs shows the destructive path of the fire, June 27, 2012.PlayJohn Wark/
WATCH Colorado Wildfires: Obama to Visit Devastated Areas

Pumping think, black, suffocating smoke into the sky, the devastating Colorado Springs wildfire has left 32,000 people scurrying for shelter and officials struggling to assess the damage.

Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey said officials had no plans to release the numbers of homes destroyed, insisting that residents have a right to be told first, in private.

But the blazing inferno has kept officials at a distance. Conditions were unkind to firefighters Wednesday as 65 mph winds refueled the fires in Waldo Canyon. Recent aerial photos show entire neighborhoods wiped out. As of this morning, residents don't know when they will be able to return home, or even if their home survived.

Jason Hopper, like many panicked residents, only had minutes to gather necessities and leave his home behind. Hopper, along with his wife and four kids, is using the resources of one of three shelters opened to fleeing residents. Hopper says the flames snuck up on him.

"I walked outside and flames were down the side of the mountain," Hopper said. "I'm moving on now."

"It's a lot to take in," adds Hopper's wife, Kathleen.

More than 1,000 firefighters are on the ground and many of the nation's fleet of C-130 planes are dumping retardant from the skies above. Four of those C-130 planes dropped more than 60,000 gallons of retardant over Waldo Canyon Wednesday.

Satellite images from NASA show even those lucky to escape the flames might not escape the chocking plume of smoke over Colorado's second-largest city and beyond.

In Colorado Springs, doctors say the air quality right now is at least 10 times worse than it was before the fire. Dr. Timothy Rummel says about 40 people have been to the emergency room because of smoke inhalation.

With the Fourth of July holiday approaching, authorities reminded residents to respect a ban on fireworks. President Obama will tour fire-stricken areas of Colorado Friday and thank firefighters battling some of the worst fires to hit the American West in decades.

Carey said Obama's visit to Colorado, considered a key battleground state in the presidential election, would not tax the city's already-strained police force. Gov. John Hickenlooper said he expected the president might sign a disaster declaration that would allow for more federal aid.

After flying over the area, Hickenlooper compared it to the "worst movie set you could imagine."

"It's almost surreal," he told The Associated Press. "You look at that and it's like nothing I've seen before."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.