Updated: June 12, 2013 at 3:02 am
The Black Forest fire incinerated at least 60 El Paso County homes in a matter of hours on Tuesday, and a top-level federal firefighting team and military aircraft are expected to arrive Wednesday to battle the uncontained blaze.
The fire, which had burned up to 8,000 acres and run about eight miles from Peregrine Way to east of Meridian Road by late Tuesday, showed no sign of relenting and the evacuation zone continued to expand. Wednesday's weather, with only slightly lower temperatures and winds predicted, isn't expected to help.
The fire burst into a monstrous black plume Tuesday afternoon, and sent thousands of El Paso County residents scrambling for their lives, rushing to save livestock, dirt bikes, and hay bales as their yards started to catch fire.
The fire was reported about 1 p.m. on a day of record-high temperatures in the county, with gusting winds fanning the tinder-dry vegetation. The heavily forested and drought-ravaged community northeast of Colorado Springs was "defenseless" despite all precautions residents took, they said as they fled. About an hour after the fire was reported, the first house was ablaze; many hours later, residents continued to flee in panic, some returning on foot into closed neighborhoods to rescue horses or look for stranded neighbors.
The cause of the fire is unknown, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said.
Police officers, sheriff's deputies and nearly 155 firefighters combed the burning neighborhoods for those who chose to stay behind, Maketa said. Residents seeking information on the fire can call 444-8300.
Maketa requested the highest level of federal support, a Type 1 Incident Management Team, to take over the firefighting effort, and the team is expected to take command at noon Wednesday.
Also, military air tankers based at Peterson Air Force Base were ordered to join the firefighting effort Wednesday morning, Congressman Doug Lamborn said late Tuesday at a news briefing.
Maketa said 20 National Guard troops would arrive Wednesday to patrol evacuated neighborhoods, bolstering local law enforcement.
Maketa said he expected the number of burned structures to riser; there were no known fatalities. Some people had refused to evacuate and authorities were checking on them.
Gov. John Hickenlooper arrived in Colorado Springs late Tuesday and joined the news briefing at 10 p.m.
"You don't get to choose what life does to us," Hickenlooper said, noting the dry, windy conditions that fueled the fire.
"My fear is that our best chance... is to get there in the first few hours," he said of aerial support.
Some of 5,470 residents from nearly 2,000 homes who spent the afternoon fleeing the ravenous fire feared that hundreds of homes had burned. The mandatory evacuation zone is bounded by Eastonville Road to the east, Hodgen Road to the north, Burgess Road to the south, and Tahosa Lane to the west. Maketa told those who live near the evacuation boundaries to start packing.
"If you can go, go," he said.
Black Hills Energy had shut off natural gas services to 2,387 customers in Black Forest on Tuesday.
The Black Forest fire is the second wildfire to ignite and destroy homes in El Paso County in the past year. Last June, the Waldo Canyon fire erupted on the opposite end of the county, and went on to consume 347 homes in northwest Colorado Springs and kill two Colorado Springs residents.
But the Black Forest fire was a different beast altogether - it raged through grasslands and heavy timber in terrain that, unlike mountain canyons, is accessible to firefighters. It burned hot and fast - jumping road after road, forcing fire crews to "bug out" to escape the flames, said Sunny Smaldino, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Springs Fire Department, which had crews protecting homes.
By late afternoon, two double-rotored Chinook helicopters were dumping buckets of water on the fire. The fire burned black - a sign that it was consuming "heavy fuels," such as thick forest or homes.
Colorado State Patrol Trooper Bryce Schumann was patrolling west of Vollmer Road, along Shoup, when he ran into a 40-foot-tall wall of fire, but managed to find another forest road that led him safely away.
The fire started a billowing white plume on a hot afternoon, attracting attention from across the city, eerily mirroring the Waldo Canyon fire. From a Route 66 gas station off Black Forest and Vessey roads, Greg Quigley watched the fire grow. Quigley, who owns Munson Ditching just down the street, set up a lawn chair on the gas station roof and watched the flames and smoke surround homes - until the fire got too close. Just before 6 p.m., he packed up his truck, closed up shop and drove away, joining an endless stream of residents flooding Black Forest Road as they hauled out household goods and horses. One resident drove his tractor out with his motorcycle clenched in the tractor's jaws.
As Eric Olson pulled away from his home, he realized that all the mitigation work he had done over 20 years would serve little purpose.
"I did what I could to clean it out the last couple of years," he said of his property. Cattle Creek runs through his backyard. "But there's just too many trees. It's indefensible."
Olson who moved to Black Forest 20 years ago, when he bought the house less than a half-mile west of Black Forest Road and north of Shoup Road. He was at work when his wife called, alerting him to the blaze. He raced home and picked up a few items - Irish Uilleann pipes, "a fine fiddle" and speakers. He also grabbed his cat and put him in his car.
"He jumped out," Olson said, his eyes watering. "So maybe he's OK. Not looking promising."
"That's the thing I feel sorry about," he said. "And you see people with horse trailers turning around. That's what people care about. Everything else is just stuff."
Shannon Stanley found himself walking and leading his three horses, Poncho, Dakota and Cherokee, having left his home on Wild Oak Drive in flames.
He was trying to meet a friend with a horse trailer on the other side of the evacuation zone, but instead found himself stranded - police blocked the trailer from entering, and he stopped at the intersection of Gun Club Trail and Black Forest Road.
He pulled out his cell phone to make a call, and talked over the explosions - most likely propane tanks erupting to the north and west.
"The worst I think I'll do is just let them go and they can run," he said, still on the phone.
He hung up and milled around with his three horses. About an hour later, having walked to Black Forest and Shoup roads, he made a decision. He left his horses in some tall grass - green grass, he added, that they can eat.
"God gave them enough sense," he said. "They'll run."
Gazette reporter Jesse Byrnes contributed to this report.