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WALDO CANYON FIRE: One dead, 347 homes destroyed

June 28, 2012
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The remains of one person have been found in the ruins of a Mountain Shadows home, Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey announced late Thursday.

Another person who lived at the house at 2910 Rossmere St. remains unaccounted for, he said.

The brief announcement came at the end of the sixth day in the battle against the Waldo Canyon fire, which has destroyed 347 homes and damaged countless others.

As some details of the fire's toll were announced, firefighters were buoyed by "significant" progress against the flames on Thursday and the forecast of another day of slightly cooler temperatures, scattered rains and calmer winds. For the first time since the fire erupted on Saturday, authorities went the entire day without ordering people to flee homes or pack belongings.

Instead, police lifted the veil on a swath of houses and businesses along Interstate 25 from Rockrimmon Boulevard south.

Dozens of displaced residents waited at the entrance to Rockrimmon Boulevard Thursday evening as authorities prepared to reopen some evacuated neighborhoods, including Kissing Camels, Holland Park and lower Rockrimmon.

The sight was indicative of the progress made Thursday. Crews upped containment of the 16,750-acre blaze to 15 percent, a fact largely attributed to progress on the southwestern edge of the blaze along U.S. 24 through Ute Pass.

“The weather cooperated with us today like it has no other day since it started,” said Jerri Marr, supervisor of the Pike National Forest.

But as some people returned home, the devastation wrought by the Waldo Canyon fire became painfully clear. Firefighters counted 347 homes destroyed along 35 streets in the Mountain Shadows and the Flying W Ranch neighborhoods — making it the most destructive fire in state history.

Concerns also remained of the whereabouts of a small number of people unaccounted for since Tuesday, Carey said. At a 4 p.m. briefing, Carey said fewer than 10 people were missing.

About 10:30 p.m. he announced that the remains of one had been found at the Rossmere home.

That area of Rockrimmon, just north of Chuck Wagon Road, was put on pre-evacuation notice about 1 p.m. Tuesday, and became part of a mass evacation ordered as flames crested the hills to the west later that afternoon.

The neighborhoods south of Chuck Wagon Road had been on evacuation since Sunday.

Aerial pictures taken by the Denver Post showed blocks of houses reduced to grey ash, each lined by a black ring of soot. Green lawns lined many rubble-strewn foundations. Lush pine trees, apparently unscathed, flanked dozens more.

At the end of one cul-de-sac, four houses still stood. A few walls, toothpick two-by-fours and soot were all that remained of at least nine houses up the street. In many cases, houses either burned to the ground or escaped intact.

City officials warned that the toll of destruction would likely increase. The figure was for destroyed properties, not those damaged.

“This is going to be a tough evening,” said Mayor Steve Bach. “But we’re going to get through it.

“The community is going to surround them with love and encouragement and we will move forward as a city better than we ever have.”

Bach’s words came as firefighters made significant gains on a blaze that had proved heartlessly tricky to battle until Thursday.

Firefighters on the ground scratched lines along the fire’s western flank, leaving Rich Harvey, the incident commander, hopeful that crews would soon only need to patrol there for flare-ups.

Five crews from the north and two from the south descended on a troublesome area northwest of Chipita Park. More firefighters made camp on the north end of Rampart Reservoir to keep an eye on a blaze ignited earlier this week by embers that flew across the lake.

The fire appeared to envelop most of the southern end of the reservoir, bringing with it concerns that the city’s drinking water would be impacted. The water’s taste and odor will be a “challenge,” though a Colorado Springs Utilities spokesman expressed confidence in its water purifiers.

Calmer winds — in the neighborhood of 10 mph — and relative humidities of 10 to 15 percent were forecast for Friday, offering firefighters more hope that Friday would bring further gains on the fire lines. Colorado Springs is forecast to hit 92 degrees, with a chance for thunderstorms.

But Marr warned that the fire has proven unpredictable.

“It’s easy to think that we’re almost there,” Marr said. “There’s a lot of fire on the ground. There’s a lot of fight in us.”

As she spoke, a legion of firefighters stood watch over the Peregrine neighborhood south of the Air Force Academy, a high-end community set against Blodgett Peak to the west. C-130 aircraft flew north, then circled back to drop 2,800 gallons of retardant in a draw north of Blodgett Peak.

The Air Force C-130s made 15 slurry drops Thursday, bringing the total number of drops over the Waldo Canyon fire to 53 since those planes first took off from Peterson Air Force Base on Monday afternoon, said Lt. Col. Dave Condit, with the 302nd Airlift Wing.

Two of the four C-130 out of Peterson also made four drops over the Flagstaff fire near Boulder this week.

Containment lines near Cascade and Crystola, as well as the line near Blodgett Peak, were targeted by Condit’s crew. Each flight has been sobering, he said, because he often had to fly over Centennial Boulevard to get to the drop zones.

“Just feels a little different when you fly right past a home that you’ve been in, and that you know the layout of the living room,” Condit said. “It just seems a lot more real and more tragic.”

The destruction will be the focus of a visit Friday by President Barack Obama. His arrival isn’t expected to impact C-130 operations out of Peterson, said Capt. Jamie Humphries, a spokesman for U.S. Northern Command at Peterson.

Deputies from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, as well as Secret Service personnel, will staff security for the president to keep Colorado Springs police providing security in evacuated neighborhoods, Bach said.

Two people were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of breaking into houses in the burn area, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Belinda Yates, 38, and Shane Garrett, 36, were allegedly carrying methamphetamines when arrested.

To the west, communities cut off by the continued closure of U.S. 24 resembled ghost towns.

Employers in Woodland Park — where many of the 7,600 people have evacuated — had trouble staffing stores.

But there was bittersweet hope.

Shane Reavis, waiting with his two children and his girlfriend, Christine Rivera, said he fled their home in Colorado Springs about 6 p.m. Tuesday and spent 2 hours waiting to move a half mile to safety. On Thursday evening, he drove onto Rockrimmon Boulevard and to his home.

As he went home, hundreds of families learned they were homeless.

“That’s really sad for them, and hopefully we can come together as a town and figure out what their wants and needs are,” he said. “We need to help them, because we were blessed.”

Gazette reporters Lance Benzel, Matt Steiner and Kristina Iodice contributed to this report.

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