COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Residents returning to the neighborhoods they were driven from just days ago by Colorado's most destructive wildfire ever are seeing firsthand the path of destruction left behind by the flames.
Firefighters battling the fire in a rural region northeast of Colorado Springs have made huge advances in recent days, aided by unexpected rain showers and calmer winds, and authorities lifted most evacuation orders. Fire crews expanded containment lines Saturday to 55 percent.
Jack and Judy Roe thought their home was among the nearly 500 destroyed but found it standing amid other scorched houses in their neighborhood.
"We've been on such an emotional roller coaster over this thinking we had lost everything and then to find out that it's still there. It was a big relief to us, but I mean, 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.
Bob and Barbara Metzger lost their home, while nearby by their SUV, clotheslines and surrounding trees were spared.
"As long as the world around me looks the same, I'll be fine," Barbara Metzger said, showing a photo of her burnt home with surviving trees around. "We'll rebuild."
Authorities have also gained a clearer picture of a grim landscape in a burn area covering 25 square miles.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said the fire's destruction has made it difficult for his deputies to assess damage. Deputies have said "it looks like a nuclear bomb went off in some of those areas, and 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."
The fire exploded Tuesday amid record-setting heat and tinder-dry conditions. Two people have died, their bodies found inside their garage Thursday. Their car doors were open as though they had been about to flee, authorities said.
It's unknown what sparked the blaze, but investigators believe it was human-caused. So far, it's cost more than $3.5 million to fight.
On Saturday, worried residents waited for permission to return to their neighborhoods to see the damage. They also worried about potential looters as Maketa tried to reassure them, saying deputies are on patrol.
"We have not let up any of our security efforts," he said.
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 northeast 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 Canon 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.