COLORADO SPRINGS – Fire officials say crews have gained the upper hand on the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history and had more than half the blaze contained by late Saturday.
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.
The wildfire left behind a grim landscape and El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said that in some areas of the blaze’s path, it appeared as if “a nuclear bomb went off.”
The fire that exploded Tuesday outside of Colorado Springs destroyed nearly 500 homes and killed two people who appeared ready to flee. It’s unknown what sparked the blaze.
No additional homes were destroyed Saturday as fire crews expanded containment lines, Maketa said. Also, there were no new reports of injury or death, he said. The fire’s destruction has made it difficult for his deputies to assess damage, he added.
“You can’t even recognize whether it was a house or some other kind of structure,” Maketa said. “That is the level of incineration and destruction that took place in some areas.”
It’s unknown what sparked the blaze, but investigators believe it was human-caused. So far, it has cost more than $3.5 million to fight.
On Saturday, worried residents waited for permission to return to their neighborhoods to see whether their homes were still standing. Most mandatory evacuation orders have been lifted, as the fire zone remained at 25 square miles.
Some residents already have 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, where 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 his 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 Cañon 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.