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Firefighters make headway against deadly Colorado blaze

A house sits undamaged in the aftermath of the Black Forest Fire in Black Forest, Colo., Friday. Hundreds of firefighters made a determined stand on Thursday to stop the wildfire that has already destroyed more than 400 homes from roaring into the outskirts of Colorado Springs after it billowed overnight into the most destructive blaze in state history.

A house sits undamaged in the aftermath of the Black Forest Fire in Black Forest, Colo., Friday. Hundreds of firefighters made a determined stand on Thursday to stop the wildfire that has already destroyed more than 400 homes from roaring into the outskirts of Colorado Springs after it billowed overnight into the most destructive blaze in state history.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A deadly wildfire that has ravaged more than 400 homes, ranking as Colorado’s most destructive ever, roared for a fourth day through drought-parched timber on Friday near Colorado Springs, though authorities reported making some headway against the blaze.

The fire has charred roughly 24 square miles of rolling, forested terrain northeast of Colorado’s second-largest city since it erupted on Tuesday, forcing some 38,000 people to flee their homes and killing two people.

Fire managers expect it will take nearly another week to fully contain the blaze, but the outlook appeared to improve as rain showers moved into the area at midday following an encouraging night on the fire lines.

“Last night was a success and was kind of that turning point that we’ve been looking for,” El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa told a morning news conference, adding that cloud cover, cooler temperatures and calmer winds helped the firefighting effort early on Friday.

Officials cautioned that strong, erratic winds that stoked the blaze during its first three days could return, and that firefighters were doing their utmost to consolidate the gains they made overnight.

Aerial photos of devastated areas showed large swaths of obliterated neighborhoods with bare, blackened trees and houses reduced to cinders and rubble.

A day after crews recovered the bodies of two people killed on Tuesday night in the midst of an evacuation as flames closed in on their home, Maketa and other officials gave a mostly upbeat assessment of progress made in corralling the blaze.

Firefighters with bulldozers managed to clear a new buffer between the western edge of the blaze and the city limits of Colorado Springs. But officials said evacuation orders for the northern tip of the city and adjacent communities on its outskirts would remain in effect for the time being.

“We think we’re going to be okay, but we don’t want to put people back in there too quickly,” Colorado Springs Fire Chief Thomas Smith said.

The evacuation zone within the city, encompassing about 1,000 homes, lies just west of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The official estimate for containment around the fire’s perimeter would hold at 5 percent, authorities said, until assessment teams have a chance to better view the landscape by the light of day.

“Even though they feel confident of what they did last night, it’s hard to get that on a map,” incident commander Rich Harvey of the U.S. Forest Service said. “We didn’t lose anything last night. We gained something. We’re just not ready to quantify that.”

Maketa said an investigation into the two fire-related deaths as possible homicides did not necessarily mean authorities suspect arson.

“When I say, ‘homicide investigation,’ it’s because we have two deceased people (and) that means we investigate it as a crime until we prove otherwise,” he said.

On Thursday, authorities said 360 homes had been confirmed as total losses, surpassing the previous record of 346 dwellings destroyed last year on the northwestern fringe of Colorado Springs by the so-called Waldo Canyon fire, then deemed the most destructive blaze in state history.

Although no additional structures burned overnight, the running tally of confirmed losses climbed by 29 homes on Friday, and Maketa said assessment teams still had nearly 5,000 homes in the fire zone to survey for damage.

Catastrophe modeling company AIR Worldwide, whose software is used by the insurance industry to predict losses, said the houses within the fire’s perimeter had a total value of around $500 million. Ultimate losses could be less than that, though, depending on how badly damaged the houses were.

While firefighters have managed so far to prevent flames from encroaching within the city limits of Colorado Springs, some neighborhoods remained at risk, Harvey said.

“Today is a critical day for us,” said evacuee Eric Selvig, an Air Force retiree who said his home was still intact but within an area still considered in harm’s way.

The day’s overall goal was to shore up and extend newly carved buffer lines around the fire, to tamp down interior hot spots and to steer flames out of heavy timber into grassier areas where firefighters can exert greater control, he said.

The Black Forest blaze, named for the community near where it started, was the largest of several burning across Colorado this week and has underscored concerns that prolonged drought conditions could intensify this year’s fire season in the western United States.