BRECKENRIDGE - Residents of hundreds of homes spent a second day under a mandatory evacuation order Thursday as firefighters struggled to gain the upper hand on a relatively small, but dangerous wildfire threatening the ski resort and historic town.
Crews were attacking the fire, burning about 2 miles north of Breckenridge, by dropping firefighting slurry from the air as well as building containment lines on the ground to stop it from reaching nearly 500 evacuated homes in the Peak 7 area.
Containment was at 7 percent Thursday afternoon as fire officials kept a wary eye on the weather, hoping that afternoon thunderstorms forecast for Friday through the weekend would bring rain rather than high winds and lightning that could undo their efforts and endanger more residents.
"The weather front moving in could be a blessing if it's precipitation," said Summit County Undersheriff Joel Cochran, adding firefighters are dealing with difficult terrain and dangerously dry conditions exacerbated by beetle kill that has decimated the forest.
"It's very dangerous for firefighters to be up in because of trees that can fall, and pine ... needles that stack like a haystack," Cochran said.
The conditions in the White River National Forest are not unlike those in the Pikes Peak region. Although tree stands in the Pikes Peak region are generally ponderosa pine as opposed to lodgepole pine, both areas have been affected by pine beetle and the recent hot, dry weather.
The Forest Service has closed the Crags area, for example, to remove spruce trees that have been standing dead due to the beetle infestation of 2011.
"Generally speaking, in a healthy forest, (ponderosas) tend to burn with lower intensities; easy to control and fight," said Andy Schlosberg, assistant district ranger with the Colorado State Forest Service's Woodland Park district. "But we aren't in very healthy conditions. We have overcrowded conditions. We've got a lot of fuel built up."
Cloud cover and high humidity Thursday aided firefighters' efforts to get some containment around the blaze known as the Peak 2 fire.
About 100 firefighters were working on the ground and in the air and more resources, including a Type 1 Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, were expected to arrive Thursday and Friday, officials said. The Colorado National Guard has dispatched four helicopters - two Black Hawks and two Chinooks - to make air drops on the flames.
With smoke and haze covering the mountainsides and valley, insurance companies hired private firefighters to try to protect the pricey ski properties.
The evacuees, including vacationers, were briefly allowed back to their homes to pick up items they were not able to grab before being told to leave as the fire blew up on Wednesday.
"We're kind of in limbo right now, it's like purgatory," said Tammy Reynolds, who was forced to leave her Peak 7 home. "We're just watching the sky and hoping it rains."
The relatively small blaze quickly sent up a column of smoke visible from Interstate 70, Colorado's main east-west highway, and the 19th-century Victorian buildings in the town of Breckenridge, a onetime gold-mining camp. Residents in town have been warned to be ready to leave in case the fire spreads toward it.
Nebraska resident Sheila Calhorn was among those who had their vacations interrupted by the fire, discovered by a mountain biker near the Colorado Trail, a nearly 500-mile hiking and biking route through the state's mountains.
"We were down in Breckenridge and we looked outside, and people were all staring into the sky and you could see smoke just billowing up," she told the Summit Daily News in Frisco.
"This was supposed to be a stress-relieving vacation," she said.
The fire is one of several burning in Colorado and elsewhere around the West.
Since the blaze broke out Wednesday morning, it has scorched about 80 acres but has not burned any homes.
The base of the resort, which includes hotels, restaurants and businesses, was not evacuated.
The Peak 7 subdivision was placed under mandatory evacuation on Thursday morning. The Gold Hill, Farmers Korner, Silver Shekel and Town of Breckenridge communities were also placed under pre-evacuation.
The Associated Press and The Gazette's Seth Boster contributed to this report.