Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Word of 2 dead in Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs darkens gains against flames

By Garrison Wells Updated: June 14, 2013 at 8:25 am

The remains of two people, believed to be a couple, were discovered Thursday in their garage, the car packed and ready to flee from the raging Black Forest fire.

"The car doors were open as though they were loading or grabbing last-minute things, and all indications are from the evidence on scene that they were planning to depart very quickly," El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said.

As a result of their deaths, a criminal investigation has been launched, he said.

The announcement of the deaths dampened the good news Thursday that the fire was 5 percent contained, the first gains firefighters have made since the blaze started Tuesday.

Still, in less than three days, the fire has surged past the home destruction from last year's Waldo Canyon fire.

An estimated 360 homes have been destroyed, about 15,700 acres have been scorched and about 14,000 homes - about 41,000 residents - have been evacuated. In all, nearly 25 square miles have been affected, Maketa said.

Since the blaze started, it has been fed by high winds that have blown it in several directions. By Thursday, the count of homes destroyed jumped from the first estimate of about 100 to 360 as wind drove the fire back into areas that were spared the first day, threatened neighboring counties and jammed roads with evacuees.

All this, while the area continues to recover from the Waldo Canyon fire, which took out 347 homes as it roared from the foothills into Colorado Springs neighborhoods nearly a year ago.

Within a year, more than 700 homes have been devoured by fire.

The similarities are eerie, said Cindy Winemiller, an evacuee who was trying to find out if her Black Forest home survived.

So far, she said, it's not on the list of homes that have been destroyed.

But the scar that is Waldo is in her memory.

"It's the drought," she said. "I think it's just one of those things. In Oklahoma, they had the tornadoes."

Despite the devastation wrought in just a few days, fire officials seemed optimistic Thursday.

Rich Harvey, the Type 1 incident commander who took command of the battle at 6 a.m. Thursday, said 750 firefighters and aviation resources fought the blaze to what he called a "draw" in key areas, adding that he expected the same or better in the coming days.

"That's kind of where I'd like to leave it," he said. "Five percent containment, troops aggressively engaged from the air and the ground, high cooperation, a little bit of progress and a plan to continue to do that in the future."

In another sign of optimism, El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn said the county is putting together a plan to return Black Forest residents to their homes.

The Black Forest Community Reentry Response Team is "developing a plan for re-entry when the time is available," he said.

"I know that question is out there," Glenn said. "We are in the early planning stages, and as soon as we have more information, we will provide that in future press conferences."

In a community devoted to its animals, Glenn added that work is being done to create a central point to deal with evacuees' pets and other animals. A representative of the Humane Society will be available to help residents in the county's Disaster Assistance Center at 1675 Garden of the Gods Road.

Important community structures have survived, Glenn added. He said he saw the Black Forest Community Center, The Pinery and School in the Woods still standing.

But not everything has been so fortunate.

Since it started, the fire has taken down just about any kind of structure, Maketa said, "from maybe a homestead cabin, a log cabin built in the '50s to a $1.5 million, maybe even $2 million mansion."

"Black Forest is a very diverse community," he said. "Some of those areas have a lot of history. There's other areas that have been developed over time in the recent past and just have extraordinary homes on them."

Some people fought back.

A recently retired Colorado Springs firefighter, Dale Mielke kept flames from his dry, wooden deck and his home, while a nearby shed exploded. The forest around his home was slightly burned, although a birdhouse nailed to one tree survived. Across the street, a crown fire raged and destroyed everything in its path.

Mielke had no plans to leave Thursday, although on Tuesday night he kept his truck running for five hours in case he had to jump in and go, he said.

The fields a few streets over, however, were not as lucky.

Holmes Road is a wasteland, where the heat of Tuesday's fire incinerated homes, melted street signs and cars and was smoldering Thursday night.

The day was loaded with activity from all sides. Insurance claims were filed. Thunderstorms threatened.

When the day started, Thursday looked grim.

The weather started calm, with winds kicking up later in the day. Thunderstorms rolled through the area but dropped little rain while winds fed the fire.

"The concern for us is if there's enough moisture available in the low level of the atmosphere or the precipitation will evaporate before it reaches the ground. We can have really gusty and erratic winds with those kinds of thunderstorms and dry lightning," said Jennifer Stark, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Pueblo. Wind gusts recorded in southwest Colorado Springs were 40 mph.

As weather conditions worsened, the first mandatory evacuation within Colorado Springs' city limits was announced about 2 p.m. The Flying Horse neighborhood and surrounding areas were evacuated in about an hour, Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey said.

The department will evaluate fire and weather conditions Friday morning and decide whether to allow residents back into the area with escorts to pick up necessities.

The Police Department also is requesting help from the National Guard to provide security for the area, he said.

Even neighboring counties got involved, concerned they might be next in the fire's path.

In Douglas County, local governments stationed a strike team at a Franktown Fire Station near the Douglas and Elbert county lines. The team included four brush trucks, an engine, a water tanker and a helicopter, according to a news release.

Pre-evacuation notices were issued for the southeast corner of Douglas County.

Meanwhile, insurance claims from the fire began pouring in, according to spokespersons from some of the state's largest insurers.

Nicole Alley, a USAA spokeswoman from San Antonio, said the company received 290 claims by Thursday.

Mark Toohey, a Farmers Insurance spokesman in the Los Angeles area, said the company had received 124 claims by Thursday, and American Family Insurance spokeswoman Sandra Spann said the company received 20 claims for destroyed homes valued from $12 million to $18 million.

Heading into Friday, much depends on the weather, officials said.

They got a couple of breaks early Thursday, cloudy skies that added humidity to the air and cut down on solar radiation. Those were credited in part for the day's success, Harvey said.

Friday's outlook bodes well.

Meteorologist Mark Wankowski said the region could expect clearing skies and light southwesterly winds from 9 p.m. Thursday until Friday morning.

There are also "some pretty good thunderstorms, and those storms could bring in some low-level moisture to the area through the early morning hours," he said.

"But right now, we're just kind of watching where they're going," he added. "That would be a good, good thing for the fire to see the low-level moisture increase."

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Gazette reporters Daniel J. ChacOn, Ryan Maye Handy and Wayne Heilman contributed to this story.

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