Anger toward Fort Carson continued to build among southern El Paso County residents a day after three homes were destroyed by a fire that started on the Army post during a training exercise and grew to 3,300 acres Saturday.
Hundreds of residents who had been forced to flee with their pets and livestock as flames spread from the post to the rural Midway Ranch community were told they could go back home at 6 p.m. Saturday.
El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder said at a news conference that it had been necessary to keep residents out while assessing the damage from the fire, including power poles that had been burned, and restoring electricity.
Elder said the Carson Midway fire was 80 percent contained as of 5 p.m. However, tires and trash pits continued to burn and smolder, he said, producing toxic smoke that would prevent a few residents on Deputy Point and Prairie Fire Point from being allowed to go home. Hazardous materials officials said the tires could smolder for a week or more.
In addition to the three homes that were destroyed, Elder said numerous outbuildings, vehicles, motorhomes and boats had been burned. No injuries from the fire have been reported.
Prior to the announcement, several residents waiting at Pikes Peak International Raceway south of Fountain voiced their frustration at Fort Carson for not taking more precautions or calling off training because of the risk of a fire getting out of control.
"The Army is supposed to protect the American public, but it for sure doesn't feel like we're being protected," said Samuel Saling, a Midway Ranch resident. "They should have all hands on deck, considering how many troops are stationed there that are trained to deal with this type of situation."
Saling, who was waiting for updates Saturday morning near the PPIR, added that he and some of his neighbors had asked Fort Carson to delay burning this week because of the high fire danger but were "met with silence."
The frustration spurred the creation of a change.org petition asking Gov. John Hickenlooper, Mayor John Suthers, District 4 El Paso County Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr. and the Fort Carson commander, Maj. Gen. Randy A. George to not allow live-fire training on days that the National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning.
"It is irresponsible and unsafe for Fort Carson to execute live-fire rounds (or other exercises that can cause sparks) when there is a high fire warning/red flag days in the area," the petition reads. "The mix of high winds can create favorable conditions for the fires to spread to neighborhoods to the east, west, south, and potentially to the north and into Colorado Springs. We all understand training is necessary, but we ask them to consider options to help prevent future fires."
By mid-afternoon, the petition was approaching 650 of the targeted 1,000 signatures.
A message seeking comment from Fort Carson's Public Affairs Office was not returned Saturday. On Friday, Col. Ron Fitch, the post's garrison commander, said during a news conference that regardless of the weather or the fire danger, soldiers need realistic training for upcoming deployments to war zones.
"We're in a continuous training cycle up until those deployments and soldiers actually leave to go overseas," he said. "They were out there doing some training today, combined training between some aviation assets and infantry, and at some point, we had a fire start in the vicinity of that range today."
Elder said at the Friday news conference that structures had been burned, but how many was unknown. He said he hoped that the fire would be out Friday night, but that residents would be kept away until it's deemed safe for them to enter the area.
Until then, anyone who needed to collect medications and retrieve animals had to wait on a list at PPIR to be escorted to their homes by deputies. Authorities said Friday that 250 residences had been evacuated.
Michael Moody, a Fort Carson soldier who works as a fueler on the post, needed to collect his family's medications. He did not know if his house was still standing.
"You'll give yourself an ulcer if you stress too much," he said. "To me, it's just a house."
Rick LaChance, a Midway Ranch resident who was waiting with Moody at PPIR, agreed.
"We have insurance, so we're okay," he said. "I need a new Harley, and Fort Carson can pay up."
A former Fort Carson nurse and Midway Ranch resident Lizz Nickel is keeping her receipts to submit to insurance. She wishes the post used more common sense in deciding when to train.
"I'm very patriotic and love my country, but when it comes to live-ammo training on high fire danger days, that's a sign that something is wrong," Nickel said. "I get it. They need to train to go into dangerous situations, but I don't understand why they can't just wait a day or two."
Nickel's daughter, Reanna, was one of the Prairie Heights Elementary School students shaken by the evacuation to the Hanover Junior-Senior High School midday Friday.
"We were praying on the bus to the high school because we were scared that the first school we have ever known was going to burn down," the 10-year-old said. "Then we got more scared when we thought about our houses burning down and our animals dying."
"It was rough for the kids," Nickel said.
It is unclear whether classes will resume Monday.
Nickel tried not to get her hopes up about the evacuation being lifted.
"If they don't let us in by five, we'll have a big tailgate out here at the raceway," she said. "I've got my cowboy boots, so I'm all set."