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WALDO CANYON FIRE: Investigators find origin of blaze

July 5, 2012
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Investigators have zeroed in on the spot where the Waldo Canyon fire first sent smoke and embers soaring into the air, igniting the most destructive fire the state’s history and claiming the lives of an elderly couple, whose names were released Thursday.

The eight-agency team investigating the 18,247-acre blaze reached the fire’s point of origin, leaving investigators with the painstaking task of mapping the area and searching for clues on the fire’s cause, said El Paso County sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Kramer. No information was released on exactly where the fire started, or what clues investigators have found in the area.

The deaths of William Everett, 74, and Barbara Everett, 73, were confirmed by the El Paso County Coroner’s Office. Their names were released Thursday as their neighborhood on Rossmere Street was opened for the first time since the rushed evacuation on June 26. The couple were among the missing after a scorching firestorm roared through the street they lived on. Days afterward, police found human remains in the charred rubble that was left of the Everett’s home at 2910 Rossmere St.

Roger Yanda, the Everett’s neighbor of 12 years, returned home Thursday to find his yard speckled with cold embers and his home flanked by the ruins of neighbors’ homes.

The Everett’s were private people, but the type who always were prepared, Yanda said. Bill Everett, who was retired, loved to tinker with computers, and Yanda remembered him as an intelligent and articulate man.

But no level of preparation could spare some of the homes on Rossmere Street. Since the day the fire started, Yanda and his neighbors nervously watched as the flames licked the ridge behind their homes. The Yandas packed four cars with items and watched as the Everetts packed their own car next door.

But the residents of Rossmere Street were not evacuated until Tuesday afternoon, when police and fire officials drove through the surrounding streets chasing people away from a wave of fire coming down the hill at 65 mph.

“I don’t think people knew how fast the fire was coming down,” Yanda said Thursday.

Yanda said his son saw the Everetts drive away early Tuesday afternoon — before the mandatory evacuation shortly after 4 p.m. — but like many others, they might have returned. The Everetts’ car sat in the wreckage of their garage Thursday, its roof crushed by heat and fallen pieces of their stucco home.

As the neighborhood slowly came to life again, emergency officials focused on rebuilding from the state’s most destructive fire, which was 95-percent contained on Thursday evening, with full containment expected by Friday morning.

Homeowners along 12 streets in Mountain Shadows were allowed home Thursday evening, though only sooty foundations filled with ash remained for 126 homes lifted from the evacuation order.

Plans to open the hardest-hit areas appeared to be ahead of schedule.

Utilities crews repaired and charged natural gas lines to about 300 homes on Thursday, leaving 210 without service, said Dave Grossman, a Colorado Springs Utilities spokesman.

Nearly all the houses still standing in Mountain Shadows should have natural gas by Saturday evening, Grossman said.

Only a small number of standing homes on blocks where every other house was leveled by the fire will remain without service next week. In those cases, crews must completely rebuild natural gas systems leading to the houses.

As utilities crews worked, homeowners ventured into the fire-stricken neighborhood for the second time since flames rolled through on June 26 to begin the painstaking process of filing insurance claims.

They drove past Colorado National Guard troops guarding streets and patrolling neighborhoods for looters in the wake of evacuations that, at one point, forced 32,000 people from their homes.

An anonymous community member offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of looters, said

Colorado Springs police Chief Pete Carey. Police received 22 reports of at least homes being burglarized during the evacuation. National Guard members stationed at Rossmere Street Thursday night said the neighborhood had seen as many as 30 burglaries a night for days while homes were evacuated and the police department stretched itself thin.

City and federal officials also began planning to rehabilitate the scorched earth west of the neighborhood to mitigate the next danger facing the Front Range: flash flooding.

The U.S. Forest Service began assembling a burn area emergency rehabilitation team, which will assess the severity of the blackened forest and decide how to mitigate runoff and erosion, said Rich Harvey, the incident commander. The options facing the team include downing burned trees in a certain direction to prevent runoff, he said.

The focus on recovery and rehabilitation came as the Waldo Canyon fire appeared mostly extinguished.

The Type I firefighting team that has been working on the fire for the past week and a half prepared to transfer over to a Type III team on Saturday morning.

The move means fewer firefighters assigned — likely a couple hundred, Harvey said. There were 776 firefighters tending to smoldering hot spots Thursday morning, down from a peak of nearly 1,600 personnel.

Islands of unburned timber inside fire lines will move up in priority as containment increases even further.

“We don’t intend to just let them burn out,” Harvey said.

The last uncontained area was a spot west of Blodgett Peak, an area that firefighters planned to hit with helicopters until no smoke is seen or heat detected on infrared sensors for 24 hours.

“That country is incredibly rugged country... that is goat-rock country,” Harvey said.

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