COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Firefighters have at least temporarily battled to a "draw" with a fast-moving fire that already has 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.
The fire was at about 25 square miles Friday after crews were able to keep it from spreading much despite 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.
Thursday began somberly, with Maketa drawing audible gasps as he announced the number of homes lost. But by late that 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.
"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 Thursday. His home was incinerated Tuesday.
"If you're surrounded by people who haven't done anything, it doesn't matter what you do," Thompson said. "It's interesting that you can have a house in a forest and the building code doesn't say anything about the roof design."
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, New Mexico, Oregon and California.
In Canon City, 50 miles southwest of Black Forest, the 5-square-mile Royal Gorge Fire was 20 percent contained. Royal Gorge Bridge & Park officials said that of its 52 buildings, 48 are now gone. The park's suspension bridge 955 feet above the Arkansas River is still up, though the fire damaged some wooden planks. An aerial tram was destroyed.
A lightning-sparked fire in Rocky Mountain National Park was burning on about 300 acres, less than originally estimated.