Crews battling Colorado wildfire take lessons from last year; some evacuation orders lifted

  • Article by: DAN ELLIOTT , Associated Press
  • Updated: June 15, 2013 - 1:30 AM

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Authorities lifted evacuations in a wide swath of terrain outside Colorado Springs on Friday as they said a surprise rain shower helped them expand containment of a wildfire that has destroyed more than 400 homes.

Just one day after clearing out the Flying Horse neighborhood in northern Colorado Springs, officials allowed people back into at least 1,000 houses. They also re-opened an eastern swath of the nearby Black Forest area in El Paso County.

Incident Commander Rich Harvey said the Black Forest Fire — the most destructive in Colorado history — is now 30 percent contained. It was only 5 percent contained Thursday.

The fire, in which two people died while apparently trying to escape their home, began Tuesday during record-setting heat and tinder-dry conditions. Officials warned it still could flare up again if the weather shifts. So far, 419 homes have been destroyed.

Crews say they were better prepared to take on the flames because of lessons learned fighting last year's Waldo Canyon Fire, a similarly devastating blaze that devoured hundreds of homes and killed two people only a few miles away.

When the Black Forest, a thickly wooded rural region north of Colorado Springs, began to burn, authorities swiftly evacuated tens of thousands of people from an area larger than the Denver metropolitan area.

They immediately began hand-counting destroyed houses to get information out to nervous homeowners. And they rushed federal troops and aircraft into action, cutting the red tape that had grounded those resources a year ago as smoke clouds billowed over Colorado.

Within an hour, El Paso County had its emergency operations center up and running and summoned aircraft from nearby Peterson Air Force base. Rep. Doug Lamborn called the federal center in Idaho that coordinates western firefighting to speed up the process of clearing the planes. Gov. John Hickenlooper mobilized the Colorado National Guard, and troops began to help secure the rapidly growing evacuation zone.

"We've done it all before and so there was no question," said Nicola Sapp, El Paso County budget officer. "Everybody jumped right in."

The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

Before the fire got out of hand, authorities evacuated people miles away, sending deputies door-to-door to ensure everyone left. They remembered the speed at which last year's fire spread.

"That's one thing I'll never forget — how fast that Waldo Canyon Fire moved," said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, who was bowled over by how rapidly help arrived this week.

The latest blaze raced through the rural reaches of the metro area, doubling in size overnight and charring at least 400 homes. The bodies of two people were found inside their garage Thursday, their car doors open as if they had been about to flee.

Some Waldo Canyon evacuees endured days without knowing whether their houses survived. So Maketa sent deputies in at night to survey neighborhoods. It was a painstaking, risky process as ashes smoldered around them while they strained to determine the addresses of charred properties. About 24 hours later, the department began releasing the addresses of houses that were lost.

It might take two weeks to get a perfect count, but the sheriff decided to err on the side of rapidly releasing information.

"I'd rather disappoint one person, but get it right to another thousand," Maketa said.

On Friday, firefighters were aided by some rainfall in the burn area.

Hickenlooper toured the zone and said he was happily drenched.

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