What will it take to stop the Black Forest fire?
All the firefighters and air tankers in the world can't stop a wind-driven wildfire with fuel to burn, experts say. Although winds Thursday morning are expected to be calmer, they are likely to pick up again by the afternoon, even as a high-level fire management team steps in to try to control the uncontained blaze that by Wednesday afternoon had consumed nearly 100 homes.
"The one thing we can use - that nobody can deliver - is the break from wind," said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa on Wednesday night. "We are fighting two heads to this fire, going in two different directions."
The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning again today, starting at 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. Temperatures are expected to rise very dramatically as the day progresses.
“By mid-to-late morning the winds should pick up form the south," said a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pueblo. "Winds will be about 10 to 20 mph at noon or so and gusts will reach 30 mph in the early afternoon and evening. Temperatures will start off in the 50’s and get up to the and will rise. In most areas toward the fire, temps will hit 90 by this afternoon.”
The weather service also reported a slight chance of isolated thunderstorms in the region that could produce gusty winds and lightning but little-to-no rain.
At 6 a.m. on Thursday, Rich Harvey's Great Basin Incident Management Team - the same group that managed the Waldo Canyon fire - took over the Black Forest fire, which was reported on Tuesday afternoon and rapidly spread into an inferno that has endangered more than 400 homes and the lives of some 5,000 residents who fled as winds fanned the flames.
Wind proved a merciless adversary on the fire's front lines Wednesday, as 487 firefighters were forced to retreat from walls of flame, often leaving homes and outbuildings to burn. The fire grew to 8,500 acres by Wednesday night. Some 112 law enforcement officers are combing the neighborhoods double-checking evacuated homes; no fatalities have been reported, although one person has been declared missing, Maketa said.
The Sheriff's Office also released a preliminary loss list that showed 92 homes had been labeled "destroyed" as of noon Wednesday.
Mandatory evacuation zones grew throughout Wednesday, and just before 10 p.m. a large area, including Gleneagle, was placed on pre-evacuation status, bounded by Interstate 25 on the west, Highway 83 to the east, North Gate Boulevard to the south, and Highway 105 to the north.
Despite the change in command Thursday morning, little else could change. The Incident Management team brings more firefighters and resources, experience and the political clout it takes to get additional resources. But they bring no guarantee that the fire will quiet down, said Bill Gabbert, former executive director of the International Association of Wildland Fire.
"In order for the fire to stop, something has to change," Gabbert said, referring to three key elements that move fires - weather, landscape and things to burn. "They (the Type 1 team) do have more influence - it's easier for them to get more resources. They have more pull for getting more air tankers. But those differences are rather subtle, so there's no magic bullet that comes with a Type 1 Incident Management Team."
Last summer, when the team was into its second day on the Waldo Canyon fire, the fire exploded, rained embers on the Mountain Shadows neighborhood and destroyed 347 homes.
On Wednesday, erratic winds were not giving firefighters the break they needed on the Black Forest fire, Maketa said. Instead, the fire grew relentlessly. Residents should wake up Thursday to find more of the forest burned, possibly up to 12,000 acres, and a more humid day that will gradually become drier, hotter and windier, said meteorologist Stan Rose with the National Weather Service in Pueblo. Early morning humidity on Thursday - which is absorbed by trees and plants, making them harder to burn - should make things easier for fire crews, Rose said. Another red flag warning predicting critical fire conditions has been issued for Thursday.
"That's going to help quite a bit, but that's going to be short-lived," he said. "Thursday afternoon the winds will pick up again and it's going to get bad."
As he released the preliminary loss list on Wednesday, Maketa warned that winds forced the fire to double back, and homes that had earlier been standing could now be gone. The same winds pushed the fire across eastern parts of the county, toward Douglas and Elbert counties, both of which had crews working the fire. Late Wednesday afternoon it made a run to the west, prompting a voluntary evacuation notice for residents east of I-25 and north of Old Ranch Road, an area within the Colorado Springs city limits.
The mandatory evacuation zone expanded in all directions throughout the day. The fire also became the second major Colorado fire to get help from a next-generation air tanker, a large DC-10 that can carry 11,600 gallons of retardant. The tanker was available under a recent contract with the U.S. Forest Service.
Until the Type 1 Team took over, 28 Colorado-based fire crews worked in tandem, dividing into task forces, protecting homes and digging or bulldozing fire breaks. Mutual aid calls sent out by El Paso County brought Colorado Springs Fire Department and Colorado Springs Utilities fire crews into the fight, as well. About 60 city firefighters were assigned to the fire as of Wednesday, said Interim Fire Chief Tommy Smith. The wildland crew for Utilities had 25 of its 52 trained firefighters on the fire - a group was assigned to dig fire breaks with bulldozers on Wednesday, said Chief Mike Myers.
Myers had fought the fire throughout Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning. In neighborhoods without electricity to run water wells, Myers' crew and others relied on tenders, or portable water tankers, to refill their engines and trucks. Twice, Myers retreated from walls of crown fire hundreds of feet high - a nuclear-like explosion of flame on the tops of trees that can run for miles jumping from tree top to tree top.
"Once the fire's up in the trees and you've got a 200-foot wall of flame coming at you, there's not much you can do with a thousand gallons of water," he said on Wednesday, as he prepared to head back to the fire. "So you just kind of move back, let it pass, go in and catch it."
You can never fight a fire head-on, Myers said. The Type 1 team operates under the same principle, said Gabbert.
While the Type 1 prepares to take command, El Paso County has already gone into recovery mode. County commissioners announced the opening of the Disaster Assistance Center, 1675 Garden of the Gods Road, which will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily until further notice. The center will offer resources for those who lost their homes, including counseling services, insurance agents and a few Waldo Canyon fire survivors who hope to advise the latest fire victims on the recovery process to come.
Although in some aspects eerily similar to the Waldo Canyon fire, the Black Forest fire has been indiscriminate in its destruction of homes, said Sheriff Maketa. Whereas the Waldo Canyon fire seemed to carve a random pattern through Mountain Shadows - leaving some homes untouched while others burned to the ground - the Black Forest fire has wiped out entire areas of homes.
Some residents didn't wait for the release of the county's list of destroyed homes on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, homeowners struggled to evacuate their livestock; by Wednesday, some were back, looking for animals they left behind, and finding their homes destroyed.
Members of Wild Blue Animal Rescue and the Kit Carson Riding Club, some of whom are Black Forest residents, raced up and down the evacuation zone's northern border, Walker Road, searching on Wednesday evening.
They greeted everyone they saw with the same question: "Have you seen any horses?"
Their vehicle with seven searchers bounced along dirt roads in El Paso County, where they rescued 11 horses, 14 dogs and one bunny, said Michelle Andree. As they wound their way through the evacuation zone, they passed through several neighborhoods where houses were burned to the ground.
"I've seen so many," Alan Havens said, including his own. On Tuesday, the fire destroyed his home on Rusk Lane.
"That's why I do this - keeps my mind off it," Havens said.
Gazette reporters Jakob Rodgers and Jesse Byrnes contributed to this report.