Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Black Forest fire subsides, some evacuees go home

Lance Benzel and Monica Mendoza The Gazette - Published: June 15, 2013

The wildfire that forced thousands from their Black Forest homes was being tamed Saturday - generating good news for hundreds whose houses survived the most destructive blaze in Colorado history.

They get to go home.

On Saturday evening, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa announced the reopening of a northern swath of unincorporated Black Forest, in a continuing sign of progress against the five-day-old, 15,700-acre blaze.

The news appeared poised to bring relief to 1,200 to 1,500 of the 38,000 residents who remained displaced as of mid-day Saturday, Maketa said. At the height of the blaze, 41,000 residents were forced to seek shelter at hotels, Red Cross shelters and the homes of friends and good Samaritans.

Earlier Saturday, tensions boiled over at Palmer Ridge High School in Monument after evacuees in attendance learned that no timeline would be given on when evacuations would be lifted - news that sparked jeers and walk-outs.

"I want to assure you all that we're doing the best we can," said El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, in what became a refrain as one evacuee after another voiced frustrations over their uncertainty about the level of damage to their homes - or whether they had homes at all..

In comments made at a separate media briefing, Maketa sought to tamp down residents' talk of sneaking past fire lines to check on the fate of their homes - a move the sheriff said could place first-responders' lives in jeopardy should they be called in for a rescue effort.

After five days of explosive growth, the Black Forest fire first began to subside on Friday, courtesy of a timely rain.

Firefighters built on the progress Saturday, pushing containment to 45 percent -- up from 5 percent just 24 hours earlier. Two people were killed in the fire, and authorities on Saturday revised their count of homes lost to 483 - easily surpassing last summer's record-setting Waldo Canyon fire, which burned just more than 347 homes and also led to two fatalities.

At the community meeting Saturday, officials fielded a range of questions for which they had no immediate answers - a reflection of the massive task of battling a forest fire while providing services for tens of thousands in need.

Asked about sources of help for those without home insurance, Glenn beat the drum for the county's Disaster Assistance Center, 1675 Garden of the Gods Road, which offers counseling, free child care, vouchers for food and clothing and an array of other resources. The center is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. until further notice.

Glenn said he called the meeting at Palmer Ridge High School as part of a needs assessment to determine what other services should be offered. Representatives of Catholic Charities and other aid groups were also on hand, passing out fliers to those who spoke of their losses in the blaze.

Some attendees reached their breaking point early in the meeting, as El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton emphasized the importance of packing 72-hour getaway bags in case of disaster.

"Don't you think we're past that?" one man shouted from the crowd, leading to jeers for Littleton and a number of walk-outs who complained the comments were insensitive. W

Despite the departures, many in the crowd offered words of thanks as they relayed concerns.

Although El Paso County released a list of burned homes shortly after the blaze, some people said their addresses were still missing from the toll, stoking their anxiety. Others said the list caused them to believe their home was safe, only to be revised to reflect they had lost everything.

"Our frustrations aren't frustrations," said Nicolette DiMaggio. "It's 'scared.'" DiMaggio's home survived even as neighbors on all sides lost their homes. She asked how best to lend a hand during the emergency.

Maketa has heard from those angry that information, especially the address list of homes destroyed and homes saved, contained errors. But those officers walking to each lot described the scene as a nuclear bomb site. There is almost nothing left to identify whether there once was a home standing there, he said.

"That is the level of incineration in some of those areas," he said.

Maketa estimated a 1 to 3 percent error rate on the information, and said he feels good about that.

"We are doing everything we can to provide accurate information," he said.

The weariness was palpable among those waiting to be allowed back into their neighborhoods.

Among those displaced by the Black Forest fire was Jon Wells, who lost his previous home in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood last summer. The lesson for Wells: high-density development in fire-prone areas is a bad idea.

"If you don't have the resources in place to protect it, then why do we allow it to be built?" he asked angrily.

Standing outside Palmer Ridge High School as the community meeting wound down, Harold and Janette Haver said they hadn't yet decided to rebuild their retirement home, which showed up in red on the county's burned list.

First they will have survey the damage in person, and gauge their emotions.

"Do we want to live in an ash tray?" Harold Haver said.

They had kind words for the workers at the Disaster Assistance Center, praising them as helpful and empathetic.

"These folks, they live everybody else's grief," said Janette Haver.

"And they're total strangers," Harold Haver said.

Ryan Handy and Matt Steiner contributed to this report.

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