Updated: June 14, 2013 at 11:16 pm
The Black Forest fire, labeled the most destructive blaze in Colorado in terms of structures destroyed, took a step backward Friday.
"If you look at it as a fight, we got our tails kicked the first couple of days," El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said. "Yesterday (Thursday) we saw it as a draw. I think today we delivered some blows."
It was a day of victories. The wind relented. The burn area was pelted with rain, containment was increased from 5 percent Thursday to 30 percent Friday and people went home.
Saturday promises similar weather, according to the National Weather Service. It will be cooler and damper, said Randy Gray, meteorological technician with the National Weather Service in Pueblo.
On Saturday afternoon, "they could see some more liquid precipitation falling on the fire, and more than just a sprinkle," he said.
On Saturday morning, the first of several community meetings concerning the fire will be held, El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn said. The 10 a.m. meeting, at Palmer Ridge High School in Monument, is open to the public.
Glenn said topics will include services that are available and the introduction of a program by El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton to help out during disasters. Among topics that could surface will be insurance issues.
Glenn advised a couple of residents who sought him out at a press conference because they were having problems with their insurance companies to bring up the issues during the meeting.
Depending upon Saturday's progress with the fire, more people could go home.
But, cautioned Harvey: "It's not a done deal. Thirty percent is not 100 percent."
On Friday, about 5,000 residents who were evacuated in the county's unincorporated areas were allowed to go home, and a mandatory evacuation area in northern Colorado Springs was lifted. Altogether, about 8,000 residents headed home.
Pre-evacuation alerts in Douglas County also were canceled.
"We very much appreciate the rain that we got today and as I've said before, if we get an opportunity, we will try to take it," said Rich Harvey, Type 1 incident commander who led the battle. "Today, we had an opportunity and we took it."
The mood among officials who have been involved in the runaway blaze that has destroyed 419 homes, devoured more than 15,700 acres and evacuated more than 41,000 residents was considerably lighter than in the fire's first couple of days.
Maketa and Harvey said they were grateful to the residents who washed their cars Friday, figuring that would draw rain.
"I received emails and text messages shortly after the morning conference from people who notified me they washed their cars," Maketa said. "I think that was very helpful, and I wish I had thought of that on Day 1. We had a real good day without the wind and, finally, I think the rain made a tremendous impact."
The firefighters, agreed Harvey, "got good support today from the people who washed their cars. We very much appreciate the rain that we got today."
The areas where residents were allowed to return home Friday in unincorporated El Paso County included evacuated areas east of Meridian Road and a block of land in the northwest corner of the county bounded by County Line Road, Black Forest Road, Walker Road and Highway 83.
Another pocket west of Highway 83 also was opened for residents to return.
Progress also was made in the investigation of the fire's origin, Maketa said. An email hotline drew 50 tips while a phone hotline drew 100 calls. Fifteen of them were related to the origin of the fire, he said. The phone number is (719) 444-8393 while the email address is email@example.com.
There was no new information on the couple whose bodies were found Thursday, Maketa said.
Highway 83, which has been closed north of Powers Boulevard, likely will not reopen soon, Maketa said. The highway is being used by firefighters and opening the road could result in unnecessary accidents.
Cooperation has been key to the success of firefighters, Maketa said. Among speakers Friday at the evening press conference were Black Forest Fire Chief Bob Harvey and Glenn Levy from the Falcon Fire Protection District.
Cooperation also has come from state and federal government, some of whom visited the area Friday.
Sen. Mark Udall expressed confidence in the availability of federal resources to help fight the fire. Speaking from Pikes Peak Community College's Rampart Campus, he said his efforts were focused on ensuring the government was poised to support El Paso County.
"FEMA is in place and funding has been directed toward firefighting and consequent recovery," Udall said. "Gov. (John) Hickenlooper declared a state of emergency as soon as possible."
In contrast with last year's Waldo Canyon fire, Udall noted that this time the response was swift.
"It didn't take very long to get the Type 1 Team out here," he said.
Still, Udall urged passing legislation that would make possible the creation of a firefighting fleet in Colorado, which he said is necessary, even in light of the military's quick response to the crisis in Black Forest. Udall said he has been in talks with military officials to repurpose grounded C-130 and C-27J aircraft for firefighting missions.
Hickenlooper also made an appearance. Standing under an umbrella, the governor said seeing rain over Colorado Springs was "the happiest I've been in several days." He called first responders and volunteers heroes and praised the combined efforts of city, county, state and military officials.
"This time we were all 10 times more prepared than last year," he said. "Just a week ago, representatives were meeting to talk about fire drills, scenarios and what could happen."
After seeing the devastation from the Royal Gorge and Black Forest fires, Hickenlooper said homes that were salvaged were those whose owners heeded officials' advice for fire mitigation.
When asked if he would consider imposing tougher fire restrictions, Hickenlooper said there were considerations.
"I know this is the season people want to be outside, but everyone has to be careful," he said. "Use stone-lined fire pits, extinguish everything completely, clear brush and debris from your house."
Witnessing the wildfires' destruction was tough, Hickenlooper said, adding he trusts El Paso County's strength.
"This is a resilient county, a resilient state, a strong community," he said. "We will rebuild."
While the rain was good news for firefighters, with the approach of the monsoon season in July, the Waldo Canyon burn scar doesn't need too much of the good thing.
Indeed, Capt. Carl Miller, manager of the Colorado Springs office of emergency management, said the city's team at the operations center is prepared for working a fire and a flood at the same time.
"Post-Waldo, we've really been focused on the possibility of flooding," he said.
Preparing for fire and floods has been part of the training for city staffers in the year since the Waldo Canyon fire, Miller said. The city learned about communications, process and staffing after last year's wildfire.
But for the Black Forest fire, rain Saturday will be a good thing - as long as there's not much.
"It was helpful for sure," Harvey said. "We'll take more."
If that means more residents washing their cars Saturday, so be it.
"Apparently, it works," said the weather service's Gray.
"I'm not sure of the scientific basis, but it's a widely held belief" he said jokingly. "At least people are keeping their sense of humor."
Monica Mendoza, Andrea Sinclair contributed to this story.