June 17, 2013 Updated: June 17, 2013 at 7:49 am
Thousands of residents who fled the Black Forest fire were allowed to return home Sunday, but the 4,600 people who remain evacuated could have a long wait.
Burdened by perilously weak trees, downed power lines and lingering hot spots, emergency officials warned Sunday that it remains unsafe for residents to return to neighborhoods that were the hardest hit by the fire.
"Those areas, it's going to be a little while," El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said. "I can't even give you a timeline."
Plans to allow residents to visit homes, or the ruins of their homes, where the fire burned hottest remained a work in progress Sunday. Maketa said officials must ensure the area is safe, and when residents return they will be accompanied by firefighters and other emergency officials. Details have not been finalized.
More than 100 chaplains from across the Front Range were preparing to accompany newly homeless families on tours of the burn area, said Jerome Nixon, a Colorado Springs Fire Department chaplain helping to coordinate the visits. He planned to have chaplains ready by Wednesday.
Meanwhile, roads must be inspected and repaired, officials said. Power lines lay across some driveways and roads. Burned but still standing trees were ready to fall in the gusts of thunderstorms - a hazard for firefighters who welcomed the rain but who are patrolling the unstable forest for hot spots.
Building inspectors went house to house, ensuring those that survived the fire are safe to enter. Maketa said he doesn't want anyone to jeopardize the criminal investigation into the fire's cause - which, he added, doesn't appear to have started as a house fire.
"I don't want to get the cart ahead of the horse. I don't want to create a false belief that tomorrow everybody's going home, because that's not going to happen," Maketa said. "We have a crime scene in there. We have fire in there... We have heavy equipment, bulldozers, fire trucks, water tankers, constantly moving through those roads."
The fire broke out Tuesday, scorching 14,198 acres and destroying 483 houses, the most destructive blaze in state history.
Two people who returned home to gather belongings as the fire was reported died in their garage, Maketa said.
They were away from home Tuesday when the plume rose above Black Forest, Maketa said, and they spoke to others twice on the phone while at their house. The first call, at 4:20 p.m., came as a fiery glow emanated to the west.
During a 5 p.m. call, they said they were "leaving right now" - words voiced over popping and cracking the background, Maketa said.
"It's in a very what I would consider a high temperature burned area," Maketa said. "Where the fire was obviously crowning and coming through the tops of the trees."
The victims' names have not been released.
Investigators worked Sunday as light rain fell on the smoldering blaze and firefighters continued to get an upper hand. Containment was pushed from Saturday's 45 percent to 65 percent. Federal officials estimate full containment on Thursday.
The military helicopters working the fire were sent home, no longer needed after dropping 889,135 gallons of water on the fire in 1,297 bucket loads. Much of the work by the 1,175 firefighters now involves digging containment lines on the north side and putting out hot spots.
"There's not a lot of active flames. There's not a lot of open flames," incident commander Rich Harvey said at a noon news conference.
The progress allowed several thousand evacuees to return home Sunday. A wide swath of land roughly west of Vollmer Road from Burgess Road to Shoup Road reopened to residents, along with patches of land along the northern boundary of the burn scar.
The lifted evacuations came with a promise for Dumpsters to arrive in the morning for spoiled food. Mountain View Electric crews cut power to many of the residents during the height of the firestorm, and warned that some of the outages had been extensive.
Beginning at 10 a.m. Monday, large trash containers will be available at the North Black Forest Fire Station at Ridge Run Road and Burgess Road, as well as at the El Paso County Slash and Mulch Site near Herring and Shoup roads.
The lifted evacuations came as many evacuees voiced their frustrations, with the fire entering its sixth day.
After five days of hunkering down at home in defiance of evacuation orders, Picker Munson ran out of food, supplies and patience.
So he left his home on Burgess Road, the southern border of the area evacuated for the Black Forest fire, to attend a news conference and plead with officials to narrow the mandatory evacuation zone, even though leaving meant he would not be allowed to return.
"I understand they've got to keep people safe and all that stuff, but I don't understand why they punish us for protecting our properties," said Munson, who said he ignored the evacuation order to battle any flames that came near the house. Friends had been hiking in with food for him to avoid the checkpoints.
The sheriff's office escorted hundreds of residents to homes for emergencies, at least one of whom Maketa said used it as a ruse and then refused to leave. The evacuated areas were heavily patrolled and Maketa said there had been four burglaries and one case of impersonation.
Many residents were rolling with the punches.
"I think people have to be patient. They have to understand there's a lot of people coordinating these efforts," said Linda Frost. "There's so much to deal with and there's a lot of coordination that has to take place."
"I'd love to go home. I'd love to water my plants," said resident Beth Cooley.
And, as evidenced by the crowds lining streets to thank firefighters, there was plenty of gratitude to go with the frustration.
Nikki Connon was evacuated during last year's Waldo Canyon fire. So she decided to bake a cake for the incident commander, saying "Thank you Rich Harvey."
Harvey has worked a lot of fires, including last year's Waldo Canyon blaze, but said it was his first "thank you" cake. "The outpouring of support from the community for the firefighters has been great," he said. "There's no way to say how much we appreciate it. It's been phenomenal and we're touched."