Updated: July 1, 2012 at 12:00 am
Sunday was a day of homecomings in Colorado Springs, with thousands of Waldo Canyon fire evacuees allowed back in their homes permanently and others, in the fire-torn Mountain Shadows subdivision, allowed to see what was left of their neighborhood for a short while.
As of 8 p.m. Sunday night, all but 3,000 evacuees — less than a tenth of the number at the height of evacuations — were allowed back into their homes. Also, U.S. Highway 24 was re-opened for public use at 1 p.m. Sunday and several parks, including Garden of the Gods, Palmer Park and Ute Valley Park will be re-opened Monday.
“It’s nice to finally have some good news,” said Steve Cox, Chief of Economic Vitality and Innovation for Colorado Springs. “It’s not over yet, but it’s a great step forward.”
The fire, which started June 23, is the most destructive in Colorado history and has claimed the lives of two people and burned 346 homes, most in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood in northwest Colorado Springs.
Despite high temperatures and a Red Flag Warning for fire danger Sunday, firefighters were held the blaze to 17,827 acres burned and had rings 55 percent of it with containmentlines, said Rob Deyerberg, a public information officer for the fire’s command team. The progress made in the past three days prompted officials to move up their estimate of when the fire will be fully contained by five days to July 11.
Most of the smoke that could be seen Sunday came from internal pockets burning within the fire and not new areas burning, said David Eaker, another fire spokesman.
While the progress meant that several communities in northwest Colorado Springs and along with U.S. 24 corridor were allowed back home, it didn’t mean they were out of danger, he said. Those areas remainl under a pre-evacuation warning and may have to be evacuated again if the fire grows or changes direction.
“We want those folks to be vigilant and pay attention to what’s happening ... 45 percent containment is a good ways from 100 percent containment,” Eaker said earlier Sunday.
Joe McCreary, like thousands of others in the city, was in terror Tuesday night when the fire exploded toward the city. He couldn’t imagine he’d see his home again after he saw the flames rush down the ridge toward his house in the Peregrine subdivision.
“I kept thinking ‘there is no way in hell that my house will still be standing,’” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, he learned at a press briefing that he would be allowed back in his home at 8 p.m. — at least a day earlier than he hoped he would be able to return.
He was warned that everything wouldn’t be perfect. Many areas had power out for several days, though there were no outages by Sunday afternoon, according to Colorado Springs Utilities. That meant people could expect smelling refrigerators said Steve Berry, a utilities spokesman. Also, natural gas would be turned off for evacuees and, to turn it back on, they have to dial the number on flyers left at their homes for a utilities technician.
Jerry Forte, Colorado Springs Utilities CEO, said there’s help coming from Xcel Energy to go door-to-door to turn the gas back on. He hopes the process will be completed no later than Wednesday and warned residents that it would be dangerous for them to attempt to the gas back on themselves.
McCreary didn’t mind if he didn’t have natural gas, as long as he could be home.
“I can take a cold shower,” he said. “That’s a small price to pay.”
The homecomings were bittersweet in the Mountain Shadows subdivision. There, even residents who had homes still standing, couldn’t stay.
Some homes in the neighborhood seemed intact, with residents able to wash clothes and run their dishwashers. Other homes were reduced to rubble and ash that owners sifted through in an attempt to find anything that hadn’t burned.
That area is still far from livable, said city and utilities officials, who declined to give a date when residents can return. Just to get natural gas back up and running, utilities will have to tear through the streets and re-route lines to housesthat remain standing.
Denise Reichert had the inside of her home damaged by flames and the water used to put them out. She knows it will take some time before she’s let back in the neighborhood and until her house is livable. She has already begun the search for short-term housing. It hasn’t been easy, she said, especially since so many things related to the fire still seem to be up in the air.
“We don’t really know what happens next,” she said. “There’s still a lot of unknowns.”
The American Red Cross continued to operate four shelters for evacuees on Sunday and said that 232 people spent the night at one of the shelters on Saturday.