USA — BLACK FOREST Shifting winds whipped flames through the winding roads and hills of Black Forest on Wednesday, forcing new evacuations and sending a plume of thick smoke across the Front Range.
Dozens of residents received the news they had been dreading: The Black Forest fire had destroyed their homes. Others were left with something almost worse: The agony of not knowing.
“That’s the hardest part, the waiting,” said Sharon Rambo, who shared news with other evacuees in a makeshift trailer park in a Walmart parking lot. “You can’t confirm if your house is there or not, so you can’t move in any direction. You’re just sort of paralyzed.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper declared disaster emergencies related to three wildfires burning in Colorado, with Black Forest being the most destructive.
So far, the fire has prompted the evacuation of nearly 9,500 people, destroyed 92 homes and burned about 8,500 acres, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said.
All of those numbers were likely to grow, he said, depending on weather. Thursday’s forecast called for shifting, gusty winds, even hotter temperatures and a threat of dry lightning.
“The potential for this fire to spread is extreme,” Maketa said. “We’re throwing everything at this we possibly can.”
Even one of the evacuation centers, New Life Church, had to be evacuated Wednesday because of thick, acrid smoke.
Nearly 500 firefighters were supported by Chinook helicopters and air tankers spreading slurry over Black Forest, north of Colorado Springs. Army, National Guard and Air Force units also pitched in.
Federal fire officials planned to assume command of firefighting operations early Thursday.
No injuries or fatalities have been recorded, although Maketa noted that there were reports of people who refused to evacuate. One person was reported missing.
The cause of the fire is not yet known.
The Red Cross established shelters for evacuees, and horses, llamas and other large animals were taken to fairgrounds in El Paso and Elbert counties and elsewhere. Hundreds of Boy Scouts and others were evacuated from camps in the area.
Bottled water and sports drinks were flying off the shelves of grocery stores as relief groups appealed for supplies for evacuees and first-responders. At one point, an overwhelmed Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado asked people to stop bringing water and Gatorade and to bring snacks instead.
The fire spread northwest and northeast on Wednesday, prompting new evacuations in Elbert County. Colorado Springs sought voluntary evacuations in northern areas. Treacherous winds caused the flames to double back in areas previously spared, and there has been no containment, Maketa said.
Aerial images showed twisting roads and cul-de-sacs lined by blotches of gray ash where houses once stood. On the ground, flames continued to hopscotch through neighborhoods, where the scorched shells of cars and trucks stood where they had been left by fleeing residents. Outside one home, a singed American flag still flew at full-staff.
But the fire also stopped, turned and spared in some areas. A tire swing still dangled from a tree above green grass, while smoke hung over blackened pines and earth just feet away. One car suffered just a melted bumper, while a truck nearby was torched. Two homes seemed untouched, while others on a cul-de-sac were reduced to ashes.
Sally Burr stood next to her burgundy car on Wednesday afternoon as it idled along a stretch of Colorado 83 and peered east toward a ridge where flames from the fire were visible. “Twenty-five years we’ve lived in a home over there, raised our two daughters and our son,” said Burr, as she pointed toward the large plume of smoke rising in the afternoon sun. “And now it could very well be gone.”
She and her husband were at their home babysitting their grandchildren when they smelled smoke.
“We recently built a new garage, and we laid the concrete (Tuesday) and had the grandkids place their hands and feet in the cement, so it could be something they remember,” Burr said. “The winds picked up, and we had a whiff of smoke. Then, all of
“It’s sad but we have each other and our grandkids are safe,” she said. “You live out here in the country and you know the risks of wildfire, but still, you just don’t imagine it happening to you.”
Brad Dombaugh has lived in the Cathedral Pines subdivision in Black Forest for a little more than four years and as the black smoke billowed from the blaze Wednesday afternoon, the emotion that comes with the destruction of a wildfire could be heard in his voice.
“Every time the black smoke shoots up like that, it’s got to be a house,” said Dombaugh, his voice cracking. “It’s just gut-wrenching to know that could easily have been my house.”
Dombaugh was in Vail on Tuesday when the evacuation notice came.
“I just rushed back as fast as I could, but it was too late. … I couldn’t get back to my house,” he said. “But I’m not the only one in this position. Everyone feels empty who lives in the area.”
Darrell and Jennifer Fortner lived on Nelson Street, one block south of Swan. All they salvaged was a scorched bucket truck from their fire-mitigation and tree service. They had lived in the house 20 years.
Darrell said he learned his home was gone late Tuesday from a neighbor who used a tractor to tear down trees in a vain attempt to save it. The neighbor lost his home, too.
“I’m a little blank right now,” Darrell said.
“I’m just numb,” Jennifer said. “We lost everything.”
James Pursell, executive director of Farmer’s Insurance in Colorado, said evacuees who lost their homes were seeking help before his staff had time to setup a mobile office in Black Forest.
“We had a dozen people come by within the first 20 minutes,” he said.
Against official orders, David Stanley, 40, ventured onto the property he shares with relatives on Pinery Drive because he had to know: Was it still there?
On a dirt bike, he got closer. The once-plush neighborhood was skeletal and dead. Trailers had melted into streams of molten metal. An 8,000-square-foot brick home was a pile of rubble.
“As we got closer, I knew my house was going to be gone,” Stanley said.
But there it was, a spot of color peeking out from the char. The fire had stopped at his fence.
“Every house around our property was to the ground but ours. … It was like a little sanctuary. It didn’t get touched. It’s phenomenal,” he said, flipping through photos on his computer.
“I’m not a religious person, but it makes you wonder,” Stanley said.
Stanley said that from his vantage point, the sheriff’s damage estimates were low.
“There’s no way there’s less than 300 houses destroyed,” he said.