By Trevor Hughes and Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
FORT COLLINS, Colo. - As flames from a destructive, uncontrolled wildfire licked the southwestern end of their campus, more than 1,000 cadets arrived at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs on Thursday to begin their studies.
Housing units in the southern part of the 18,500-acre academy had been evacuated Tuesday as a precaution, and a 10-acre fire briefly flared in that area Wednesday, academy spokesman Harry Lundy said.
Processing of the 1,045 "doolies," as freshmen are known, went smoothly at the north end of campus despite the looming Waldo Canyon wildfire. Evacuees are being housed at nearby military facilities, he said.
Nationally, firefighters were battling 41 major fires Thursday, the National Interagency Fire Center reported. Hot weather, lightning strikes and dry, unpredictable winds pushed the number of fires to 242, 11 of them defined as large by the fire center. The definition varies depending on terrain and danger to human habitation, said Coleen Decker at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
There were 2,864 firefighters at work, aided by 107 helicopters dumping fire retardant and water. The firefighting cost for the year so far: $119.8 million, according to the center.
The weekend will bring little relief to Colorado Springs, Decker said. Temperatures might dip slightly from 103 degrees to 100, she said. Flame-spreading winds are forecast to be weaker, but thunderstorms could light new fires .
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Colorado, with three major blazes, has the worst of it. The Waldo Canyon wildfire has burned more than 28 square miles, including neighborhoods in Colorado Springs. Mayor Steve Bach said 346 homes have been incinerated, making it the most destructive fire in state history.
Northwest of Fort Collins, firefighters said they were getting ahead of the 16-square-mile High Park fire that killed a woman and destroyed at least 257 homes after being sparked by lighting June 9. The fire was 75% contained and could be under control early next week, said Jim Toomey of the Larimer County sheriff's office.
Near Boulder, containment of the Flagstaff wildfire west of the city grew to 30%. The fire burned 300 acres, but 26 families that were evacuated Tuesday when the fire began were allowed back Thursday evening.
The fire was "one ridge away from impacting the city," said Dan Rowland, a spokesman for the Flagstaff wildfire management team. "That would have been a game-changer."
"We are on heavy alert going forward," he said. "We're watching it every day."
Contributing: Hughes also reports for the Fort Collins Coloradoan. Weise reported from San Francisco.