A grass fire that broke out in dry landscape near the west side of Bear Creek Regional Park in Colorado Springs late Thursday morning remained at 50% contained by 8 p.m. after gusty winds pushing flames dangerously close to residential areas, sparking evacuation orders.
Mandatory evacuations were issued for 235 homes west of Vista Grande Drive, and on Gold Camp Road and Bear Creek Road. All residents were ordered to leave the area immediately, and evacuated residents were instructed to meet at Cheyenne Mountain High School. After crews gained control and evaluated the fire from the air, the mandatory evacuation order was lifted and residents were allowed to return to their homes, officials announced Thursday night.
No homes were damaged or destroyed, but the fire burned right up against backyards and fences, Colorado Springs Fire Department Chief Ted Collas said.
The department ordered air support for what was named the Bear Creek fire, and multiple crews responded on the ground, the agency's spokesman Mike Smaldino said.
A Chinook helicopter dropped 8,000 gallons of water on the fire and two single engine airtankers dropped over 800 gallons of retardant along Bear Creek Road to slow the fire's spread, Collas said. Firefighters also appeared to put water on homes as a precaution.
"Swirling winds" earlier in the day made firefighting efforts tricky, he said, adding, "It would change directions on us very quickly."
The wind died down drastically later in the day, which Collas said helped significantly in firefighters’ efforts.
“Our firefighters and our partner agencies did an absolutely fantastic, and I would call it a heroic job, positioning themselves in between the fire front and those homes to create that fire line and do structure protection in a very productive way this afternoon,” Collas said.
The fire burned 23 acres with multiple agencies responding to the blaze, Collas said. He had advised residents to turn off their sprinklers as using them to dampen property reduces water pressure for firefighters trying to tap into the water lines. He applauded residents' efforts at fire mitigation.
At the high school evacuation center, about 75 people with "a lot of pets” dropped their cars off throughout the day, said Thea Wasche, sheltering lead for American Red Cross. The school’s gym was open for people to stay warm and the Red Cross was ready to help residents find a place to sleep if evacuation orders weren't lifted, she said.
James and Catherine Stieglitz, who live on Nebula Court, started packing their cars after they saw a smoke plume of smoke and headed toward Cheyenne Mountain High School. In their large van, they packed overnight supplies, as well as their musical instruments, important documents, their two dogs and their cat.
"Like my grandfather's guitar. Or just music or writings...," James said of the items he packed. "I don't know if you'll ever see that again."
The couple, along with their two children, were among a handful of other evacuees at the high school's parking lot Thursday afternoon.
"I just don't want our house to burn down," Catherine said. "We have family coming for Thanksgiving. It's just the holidays are right here."
The parking areas for Bear Creek Nature Center were also closed as the fire continued to grow and people gathered along Lower Gold Camp Road to watch the blaze and fire-fighting effort.
Todd Matlock, a Colorado Springs contractor, was watching the fire from Lower Gold Camp Road with his dogs and son Klay Matlock. He was evacuated from his house on Bear Creek Place about a quarter mile from the fire.
Matlock has taken fire mitigation efforts around his home and put on a metal roof, but said he was still nervous because it is a log cabin.
"Its 2020, so it's like what else can we hit you with?" Matlock said.
However, he was pleased he was able to get his two Yorkies, Taylor and Brodie, out in time. He came home just long enough to get essentials and clothes.
"My neighbor was attempting to break in to get the dogs," he said.
This is Matlock's second wildfire evacuation. He was evacuated from a house in Rockrimmon during the Waldo Canyon Fire.
"I am just glad he is OK," Klay Matlock said.
The fire department plans to leave six engines and 24 firefighters at the scene overnight, Smaldino said. Electra Drive will remain closed to through traffic overnight, but residents will be able to access their homes.
Another wildfire broke out Thursday west of Divide and northeast of Florissant, Teller County Sheriff's Office spokesman Greg Couch tweeted.
The fire, between 2 and 3 acres in size, briefly prompted mandatory evacuations, which were lifted after the fire was contained at about 4 p.m.
The Gazette's Christian Murdock and O'Dell Isaac contributed to this report.