Years of mitigation efforts were credited with saving scores of homes near Bear Creek Regional Park on Thursday after a wind-whipped wildfire roared up to the southwest Colorado Springs neighborhood's back door.
Given shifting wind gusts and tinder dry conditions, firefighters still faced an uphill fight.
"I was fully expecting that we'd be losing some homes unfortunately," Colorado Springs Fire Department spokesman Mike Smaldino said Friday. "Just because of the way the wind was and where the fire was."
But Smaldino said mitigation efforts from residents and local agencies gave firefighters the upper hand in combating the blaze, which is now 100% contained.
When trees and shrubs are mitigated it helps slow down fires, reduces the fire's heat and gives firefighters a chance to extinguish the flames, city forester Dennis Will said.
"This is the first time ever that we've had a fire that occurred within one of our treatment areas," Will said. "And we were super excited to be able to get in there and take a look and see how the treatments affected the rate of spread of the fire."
Will said mitigation began in 2013 when hand crews used chainsaws, handsaws and wood chippers to weed out dense trees and shrubbery.
"That's easy stuff that a homeowner can do," said Will, who encouraged homeowners to do their own mitigation.
Additional efforts followed in 2016 when crews mitigated 76 acres of the park, using heavy machinery to grind up oak brush. Now, there is less opportunity for fire to spread through bushes and taller trees, instead burning in low grasses where crews can extinguish the flames.
And that's exactly what happened Thursday.
"It really did good, the fire stayed out of the trees and out of the brush liked we hoped it would," Smaldino said.
Firefighters attacked the perimeter of the fire with hoses — bright orange flames snaking out just a few feet away, while air support dropped over 800 gallons of retardant and 8,000 gallons of water to suppress the fire.
Some hot spots were still smoldering near the center of the fire Friday, firefighters said, but no smoke was visible and all residents had been allowed back into their homes.
Robin Wright said she was at home when the fire broke out. Wright heard the sirens and walked outside when she saw the plume of smoke behind the neighborhood.
"We really appreciate the fire department and the police and everyone who acted so quickly because it we know it easily could have turned the other way," Wright said as tears welled up in her eyes. "We're just really impressed how quick and professional they were about it."
The Bear Creek fire ignited late Thursday morning on the west side of the park and consumed 26 acres of grassland, sending billows of dark smoke into the sky and people fleeing from over 235 homes.
The blaze burned past fences and encroached onto homeowners' back yards. However, no homes were damaged or destroyed, officials said.