COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Crews gained the upper hand on the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history Saturday and had more than half the blaze contained as officials prepared to lift mandatory evacuation orders for hundreds of residents.
Incident commander Rich Harvey said at an evening news conference that containment of the Black Forest Fire was at 55 percent, up from 45 percent earlier Saturday.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said some residents along the north and west fronts of the initial evacuation zone were being allowed to return to their neighborhoods at 8 p.m. after authorities downgraded evacuation orders from mandatory to pre-evacuation status in specific areas.
While most mandatory evacuation orders had been lifted, as the fire zone remained at about 25 square miles, hundreds remained displaced after the fire destroyed nearly 500 homes and killed two people. The victims’ bodies were found inside their garage Thursday, their car doors open as though they had been about to flee.
The announcement that crews had made significant advances on the blaze and taken control of it came the same day authorities were able to gain a clearer picture of the grim landscape it left behind after exploding Tuesday outside Colorado Springs. It’s unclear what caused the fire, which sparked amid record-high temperatures and tinder-dry conditions, but officials believed it was human-caused.
No additional homes were destroyed as fire crews expanded containment lines, Sheriff Maketa said. Also, there were no new reports of injury or death, he said.
Earlier Saturday, worried residents waited for permission to return to their neighborhoods to see whether their homes were still standing.
Maketa cited deputies in saying that some areas in the fire’s path had been described as looking “like a nuclear bomb went off,” making it difficult to assess the damage before Saturday.
“That is the level of incineration and destruction that took place in some areas,” he said.
Containment was at 55 percent by evening, up from 45 earlier Saturday. So far, it’s cost more than $3.5 million to fight.
Some residents had already gotten to see the damage for themselves.
Jack and Judy Roe were able to tour their neighborhood Friday, and saw to their relief that their house had been spared. Several other homes on their block, however, were destroyed.
“Our hearts were breaking for our neighbors,” Judy Roe said.
Describing the scene, she said she saw charred piles of what remained of homes, with bricks the only distinguishable feature.
“But other than that, everything is black. The ground, everything is just black,” she said.
Some residents were forced to evacuate so quickly they didn’t have time to pack an extra change of clothes.
“This is my wardrobe,” said Bob Metzger, signaling to his jeans and polo shirt. Metzger and her wife Barbara were among those who lost their house.
The site of the wildfire is only a few miles away from the state’s second most destructive wildfire, the Waldo Canyon Fire, which burned last summer.
The lessons from that fire spurred a quicker response, officials said. When the latest wildfire began in Black Forest, a thickly wooded rural region north of Colorado Springs, authorities swiftly evacuated tens of thousands of people from an area larger than the Denver metropolitan area.
White House officials said Saturday that President Barack Obama called Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday to get an update on conditions and reinforce his commitment to help. The president also expressed his concern for the devastation and gave his condolences to families who have lost relatives.
Elsewhere in Colorado, fire crews worked to contain other smaller wildfires. In Canon City, 50 miles southwest of Black Forest, the Royal Gorge Fire burned 5 square miles and was 65 percent contained. A lightning-sparked fire in Rocky Mountain National Park had burned nearly 500 acres and was 30 percent contained.
Associated Press writer Ivan Moreno contributed to this report from Denver.