Updated: July 2, 2012 at 12:00 am
Utilities crews from across the state embarked on the painstaking process of restoring natural gas to thousands of houses in west Colorado Springs on Monday, a lingering concern as firefighters battle on the front lines of Colorado’s most destructive wildfire.
For the first time in a week, thousands of homeowners focused less on the fire smoldering to the west and more on rebuilding their lives on the blackened foothills of the Front Range.
Hundreds of homeowners grappled with the prospect of being homeless. Thousands settled into houses without hot water. And nearly 1,500 firefighters had one of their best days on the deadly Waldo Canyon fire.
They contained 70 percent of the 17,920-acre blaze by Monday night. The weather helped again, offering cooling clouds and a touch of rain over the fire, which has cost more than $12.4 million to fight.
A major breakthrough included dousing a hot spot near the Cave of the Winds that had worried firefighters for several days, said Greg Heule, a spokesman for the fire crews.
As smoke lingered to the west, more than 100 natural gas technicians worked to restore service to more than 3,000 homes by the end of the day Wednesday in the Peregrine, Oak Valley and eastern Mountain Shadows neighborhoods.
Utilities crews charged natural gas lines in those three areas over the weekend, said Jerry Forte, chief executive officer of Colorado Springs Utilities.
But before service can be restored, crews must go house to house to ensure that no leaks spring up when the gas starts flowing. Their work left a tapestry of red, yellow and orange utilities markings on the driveways of houses reduced to ashes, showing buried cable, water and natural gas lines.
As temperatures rose above 90 for the eleventh straight day, Randy Morris, a utilities locator, shook his head as he worked in the hard-hit Parkside community of the Mountain Shadows subdivision.
His eyes darted the moonscape. Ashy foundations were all that remained of 141 of the community’s 178 houses.
A little more than a half-mile away, two people died in a home at 2910 Rossmere St. Their names have not been released.
“This is devastating,” said Morris, noticing the absence of any clothes or toys. “There’s nothing left. You know it’s a home. You just can’t tell anybody lived there.”
While utilities crews worked in blocks gutted by the June 26 firestorm, residents further north began work of their own.
Homeowners in Peregrine — including Dave Skovgaard, who lives on Blodgett Drive — dialed smoke cleaning companies after finding a fine layer of soot in their homes. The cleaning could cost as much as $10,000, Skovgaard said.
Left anxious by flames that chewed through forest as close as 30 feet from their houses, Skovgaard joined other residents in Peregrine in looking to chop down blackened trees while saving those merely singed. He planned to purchase enough drip lines to stretch more than 100 feet from his house to water trees still green at their tops but with brown foliage near the trunk.
“This is what I get to look at,” he said, frowning at the black forest to his west. “It never looks right. It won’t look right in your lifetime.”
The cause of that destruction remained unclear Monday.
Investigators marched behind the fire lines, though no information was released on a possible cause of the fire. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is helping the investigation.
Their work came as 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May vowed to pursue maximum charges against people suspected of looting evacuated homes.
Many residents near Centennial Boulevard reported their homes were ripped apart by burglars. More than two dozen vehicles were burglarized at hotels packed with evacuees.
“You better get prepared also,” May said of the burglars. “I hope you packed your bags.”
Colorado Springs police arrested a 53-year-old Colorado Springs man suspected of impersonating a firefighter in the Rockrimmon neighborhood, which had been evacuated. Kip Andy Peterson is the second person arrested this year on suspicion of impersonating a firefighter at a wildfire.
Overhead, helicopters offered a constant — if thunderous — reminder Monday that the fire still raged.
Diana Hartman looked above as a helicopter floated hundreds of feet above her house, dropping water on puffs of smoke rising from Blodgett Peak to the west.
The fire edged up to her deck last week, jumping several houses in the process and leaving coals in the place where scrub oak and yucca used to stand in her backyard.
Black lines crisscrossed her driveway where firefighters laid their hoses. Finally back home Monday, she picked up a hose herself — putting a little more water on the smoldered remains of her backyard.
The small comforts of life would have to wait. For now, she only cared about what was left.
“So much was lost over there,” said Hartman, motioning to the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. “I feel fortunate with what’s over here.”
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