COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Firefighters have at least temporarily battled to a "draw" with a fast-moving fire that has already killed two people and destroyed 379 homes, giving weary authorities and residents the first glimmer of hope after three days of mounting damage, a sheriff said.
After nearly doubling in size overnight, the fire held at about 25 square miles Thursday despite more swirling winds and bone-dry conditions, said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa. "If it was a draw, then that was a victory today," Maketa said, "because we haven't had many draws lately."
Little more than 36 hours after it started in the Black Forest area northeast of Colorado Springs, the blaze surpassed last June's Waldo Canyon fire as the most destructive in state history. That blaze burned 347 homes and killed two people.
The day began somberly, with Maketa drawing audible gasps as he announced the number of homes lost. But by late afternoon, a film of much-needed clouds stretched out overhead, as Maketa and other officials described determined efforts to keep the conflagration from spreading to more densely populated areas to the south and west. In one instance, Maketa said, firefighters stood with their backs literally to the wall of a rural school building and successfully fought back the flames.
"These guys just decided they were going to take a stand and save that building," he said.
But the relief was marred by sadness. Maketa said crews on Thursday found the remains of two people who appeared to be trying to flee. The victims were found in a garage in Black Forest and apparently died in the first hours after the fire ignited Tuesday afternoon. "The car doors were open as if they were loading or grabbing last-minute things," Maketa said.
Earlier Thursday, 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.
Gene Schwarz, 72, said he never fully unpacked after last year's fires. He and his neighbors wondered whether 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.
Black Forest, where the blaze began, 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 — the 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.