COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - A voracious wildfire driven in all directions by shifting winds has killed two people and destroyed at least 360 homes -- a number that was likely to climb as the most destructive blaze in Colorado history burned for a third day through miles of tinder-dry woods, a sheriff said Thursday.
The destruction northeast of Colorado Springs has surpassed last June's Waldo Canyon fire, which burned 347 homes, killed two people and caused $353 million in insurance claims just 15 miles to the southwest. The heavy losses were blamed in part on explosive population growth in areas with historically high fire risk.
"I never in my wildest dreams imagined we'd be dealing a year later with a very similar circumstance," said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, who drew audible gasps as he announced the number of homes lost to the blaze in Black Forest. The fire was 5 percent contained.
Maketa said one person who was reported missing Wednesday was found safe, but crews on Thursday found the remains of two other people who appeared to be trying to flee. The victims were found in a garage in Black Forest. "The car doors were open as if they were loading or grabbing last-minute things," Maketa said.
Earlier in the day, residents were ordered to leave 1,000 homes in Colorado Springs. Thursday's evacuation was the first within the city limits. About 38,000 other people living across roughly 70 square miles were already under orders to get out.
Colorado's second-largest city, with a population of 430,000, also asked residents of 2,000 more homes to be ready to evacuate. The streets became gridlocked with hundreds of cars while emergency vehicles raced by on shoulders.
Gene Schwarz, 72, said he had never fully unpacked after last year's fires. He and his neighbors wondered whether open space grassland to the north of them could be a barrier from the flames.
"It doesn't matter because a spark can fly over from anywhere," said Schwarz.
Hot, gusty winds fanned the 24-square-mile wildfire, sending it into new areas and back into places that had previously been spared. Even investigators sent in to determine the cause of the fire were pulled out for safety reasons.
The Red Cross said more than 800 people stayed at shelters.
Black Forest, where the blaze began, offers a case study in the challenges of tamping down wildfires in Colorado and across the West, especially with growing populations, rising temperatures and a historic drought.
Developers describe Black Forest as the largest contiguous stretch of ponderosa pine in the United States -- a thick, wide carpet of vegetation rolling down from the Rampart Range that thins out to the high grasslands of Colorado's eastern plains. Once home to rural towns and summer cabins, it is now dotted with million-dollar homes and gated communities -- the result of the state's population boom over the past two decades.
El Paso County, its economy driven largely by military and defense spending, saw double-digit growth in the last decade and is now Colorado's largest county, with more than 637,000 people.
"There's so many more people living here in the last 30 years, you couldn't believe it," said Bruce Buksar, who's lived in Black Forest since 1981.
Untold thousands of homes in Colorado's heavily populated Front Range are at risk for fires, said Gregory Simon, an assistant professor of geography who studies urban wildfires at the University of Colorado-Denver. Many are built on windy mountain roads or cul-de-sacs -- appealing to homebuyers seeking privacy but often hampering efforts to stamp out fire. Residents in the outdoor-loving state are also attracted by the ability to hike from their backyards and have horses.
"Unfortunately, these environments give the appearance of being peaceful, tranquil and bucolic and natural. But they belie the reality that they are combustible, volatile and at times dangerous," Simon said.
Nigel Thompson was drawn to Black Forest by the rural feel, privacy, lack of crime and space to raise a family.
"A safe place for my kids to grow up, lots of room for them to run around," said Thompson, a computer programmer who moved to a house on a 60-acre lot in 1997.
Five years later, he took in evacuees from a devastating fire in the foothills to the northwest. That drove home the fact that his family was living in a tinderbox. Thompson cut down 20 pine trees to form a firebreak around his house, which he topped with fire retardant roof tiles. He diligently cleared away brush, downed branches and pine cones, like many here do in community cleanups every spring.
"It didn't make a damn difference at the end of the day," Thompson said Thursday. His home was incinerated Tuesday.
"If you're surrounded by people who haven't
done anything, it doesn't matter what you do," Thompson said. "It's interesting that you can have a house in a forest and the building code doesn't say anything about the roof design."
That's what makes fire prevention so difficult, said Anne Walker of the Western Governors' Association.
"Local government has ultimate authority over where homes are placed," she said. "You need to look at local ordinances and where homes are placed and what they're made of."
El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn said the commission has tried to ensure that new developments have brush clearance and easy emergency access.
"Sometimes it's just nature," he said. "When you have a fire like this in a semi-arid environment, there's not a lot you can do."
Maketa said firefighters were hampered by a matted layer of pine needles and grass fuel on the forest floor -- fuel called "duff." Spot fires below the trees can smolder for days and even weeks inside it, then blow up. Firefighters see dry matting, Maketa said, "and when you look 10 minutes later, it's full of flames."
The military pitched in, manning roadblocks with Humvees, providing firefighters, plowing fire lines with bulldozers and flying two C-130 cargo planes and several helicopters to drop slurry and water. The aid came from nearby Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy, Peterson Air Force Base, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Buckley Air Force Base and the Colorado National Guard.
Other fires burned in Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon and California.
In Canon City, 50 miles southwest of Black Forest, the 5-square-mile Royal Gorge Fire was 20 percent contained. Royal Gorge Bridge & Park officials said that of its 52 buildings, 48 are now gone. The park's suspension bridge 955 feet above the Arkansas River is still up, though the fire damaged some wooden planks. An aerial tram was destroyed. Park officials vowed to reopen.
A lightning-sparked fire in Rocky Mountain National Park was burning on about 300 acres, less than originally estimated.