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County officials, firefighters working to allow residents to re-enter Black Forest

By: matt steiner matt.steiner@gazette.com
June 17, 2013 Updated: June 17, 2013 at 5:20 pm
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Terry Maketa went out on "the edge of the plank," he said Monday during a late morning news briefing.

When asked when more areas of the Black Forest fire's mandatory evacuation areas would be open to residents, the El Paso County Sheriff repeatedly said, "We're shooting for tomorrow morning."

The mantra came just moments after Maketa announced that another section would likely open at 8 p.m. Monday night - along the Shoup Road corridor and Bridle Bit Road.

"Our goal remains the same, to get you back in there to see your property," he said, noting that areas reopening would likely begin west of Meridian Road, which remained closed on Monday.

Black Forest fire incident commander Rich Harvey also spoke at the briefing. He expanded on Maketa's comments, once again discussing what he called a three-stage plan to ensure property is safe before allowing residents back in.

"Safe for repopulation is a different standard than safe to visit," Harvey said.

Firefighters have been implementing the three-stage plan since it was announced Saturday.

Crews are combing properties from home foundations outward looking for smoke and hotspots that could be signs of future flare ups. Harvey said when the first group is done on a lot, a second group of different personnel makes another pass.

Finally, after the first two checks are done, a third group that includes local officials are making one more inspection before clearing that property for re-entry. They are doing this "because I'm a chicken," Harvey said with a smile on Saturday.

He also said increased humidity Sunday night helped crews achieve 75 percent containment, up from 65announced Sunday.

Some equipment used to fight the blaze was being released Monday. Harvey said about a dozen resources - including bulldozers and water tenders - would remain on standby in case conditions take a turn for the worse. The estimated cost of fighting the fire to date is $5.5 million, Harvey said.

Maketa said that the number of destroyed homes remained at 483, which was first reported Saturday. The fire area remains at 14,198 acres and had not grown any overnight. Harvey said most crews were in the mop-up process.

Dan May, the 4th Judicial District Attorney, also spoke on Monday, issuing a warning to "greedy" people who might decide to loot or burglarize evacuation zones. He said those criminals would be prosecuted "to the greatest extent of the law."

"We will show looters the same compassion they have shown our friends and neighbors," May said.

El Paso County commissioner Sallie Clark, whose district was ravaged by the Waldo Canyon fire in June 2012, said Monday that challenges for the Black Forest fire would be different.

Clark said Black Forest would not have the flash-flood risk that areas near the Waldo Canyon burn scar are facing. She said one big threat will be hazard trees and what to do about burned, unstable forests.

Clark said the effects are already evident as the Black Forest fire area has "lots of utility destruction."

Harvey said Monday morning that at least 20 Black Hills Energy crews were in the fire zone Monday working hard to address needs.

County officials announced early afternoon Monday that residents affected by the fire can use a 24-hour self-serve location to get potable water. The site is at Black Forest and Burgess roads. Donated plastic containers will be available at the water source.

Officials are investigating a possible cause of the fire. Maketa said they are "zeroing in" on a point of origin, but have a long way to go.

The identities of the two people who died in the fire last week have not been released.

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Gazette reporter Ryan Maye Handy contributed to this report.

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