COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Firefighters held the line Friday on a Colorado wildfire in which two people were killed as they tried to escape and 379 homes were destroyed.
The Black Forest fire zone near Colorado Springs remained at 25 square miles, thanks to lighter winds and firefighters quickly stamping out flare-ups. Sheriff’s deputies patrolling for looters directed crews to dozens of hot spots, incident commander Rich Harvey said.
For the first time since the fire started Tuesday, authorities seem optimistic that they can stop it. El Paso County sheriff Terry Maketa said he was feeling much better about the fire in a heavily-wooded area with houses on large lots.
“I thought last night was a success,” Maketa said.
The destruction surpassed last June’s nearby Waldo Canyon Fire as the most destructive in state history. That blaze burned 347 homes and killed two people.
About 38,000 people across roughly 70 square miles have been ordered out of their homes, including residents of 1,000 homes inside Colorado Springs. Colorado’s second-largest city, with a population of 430,000, also asked residents of 2,000 more homes to be ready to evacuate.
Inside a garage, authorities found the remains of two people who apparently were trying to flee Tuesday. Maketa said someone spoke with the victims by phone as they were getting ready to leave and that the person heard popping and crackling sounds in the background.
“The car doors were open as if they were loading or grabbing last-minute things,” Maketa said of the victims.
On Friday, he said their deaths were being investigated as a crime — a routine procedure until it’s determined exactly how they died.
Investigators also worked on how the fire started. They asked the public for tips and photos of the fire in its early stages.
“I’m pretty confident natural causes is out the window,” Maketa said.
The June 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire was determined to be human-caused, but investigators still haven’t identified how it started.
Black Forest offers a case study in the challenges of tamping down wildfires 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 as a result of the state’s population boom over the past two decades.
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 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.
“It didn’t make a damn difference at the end of the day,” Thompson said. His home was incinerated Tuesday.
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.”
Other fires burned in Colorado, California and New Mexico. A southern New Mexico fire reached the historic mining town of Kingston, but an official said crews protected buildings there.
In Canon City, 50 miles southwest of Black Forest, the 5-square-mile Royal Gorge Fire was 40 percent contained and evacuation orders were lifted. Royal Gorge Bridge & Park officials said the park lost 48 buildings. The park’s suspension bridge 955 feet above the Arkansas River is still up. An aerial tram was destroyed.
A 350-acre fire sparked by lightning in Rocky Mountain National Park is 30 percent contained.