The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Out-of-control Colorado wildfire destroys at least 360 homes, surpasses last year's record

  • Print

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - A voracious wildfire driven in all directions by shifting winds destroyed at least 360 homes — a number that was likely to climb as the most destructive blaze in Colorado history burned out of control for a third day through miles of tinder-dry woods.

The destruction northeast of Colorado Springs on Thursday surpassed last June's Waldo Canyon fire, which burned 347 homes, killed two people and caused $353 million in insurance claims just 15 miles to the southwest. The heavy losses were blamed in part on explosive population growth in areas with historically high fire risk.

"I never in my wildest dreams imagined we'd be dealing a year later with a very similar circumstance," said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, who drew audible gasps as he announced the number of homes lost to the blaze in Black Forest.

Hours later, residents of 1,000 homes in Colorado Springs were ordered to evacuate. Thursday's evacuation was the first within the city limits. About 38,000 other people living across roughly 70 square miles were already under orders to get out.

Colorado's second-largest city, with a population of 430,000, also asked residents of 2,000 more homes to be ready to evacuate. The streets became gridlocked with hundreds of cars while emergency vehicles raced by on shoulders.

Hot, gusty winds fanned the 23-square-mile wildfire, sending it into new areas and back into places that had previously been spared. Even investigators sent in to determine the cause of the fire were pulled out for safety reasons.

No injuries or deaths have been reported. The Red Cross said more than 800 people stayed at shelters.

Black Forest, where the blaze began, offers a case study in the challenges of tamping down wildfires in Colorado and across the West, especially with growing populations, rising temperatures and a historic drought.

Developers describe Black Forest as the largest contiguous stretch of ponderosa pine in the United States — a thick, wide carpet of vegetation rolling down from the Rampart Range that thins out to the high grasslands of Colorado's eastern plains. Once home to rural towns and summer cabins, it is now dotted with million-dollar homes and gated communities — the result of the state's population boom over the past two decades.

El Paso County, its economy driven largely by military and defence spending, saw double-digit growth in the last decade and is now Colorado's largest county, with more than 637,000 people.

"There's so many more people living here in the last 30 years, you couldn't believe it," said Bruce Buksar, who's lived in Black Forest since 1981.

Untold thousands of homes in Colorado's heavily populated Front Range are at risk for fires, said Gregory Simon, an assistant professor of geography who studies urban wildfires at the University of Colorado-Denver. Many are built on windy mountain roads or cul-de-sacs — appealing to homebuyers seeking privacy but often hampering efforts to stamp out fire. Residents in the outdoor-loving state are also attracted by the ability to hike from their backyards and have horses.

"Unfortunately, these environments give the appearance of being peaceful, tranquil and bucolic and natural. But they belie the reality that they are combustible, volatile and at times dangerous," Simon said.

Nigel Thompson was drawn to Black Forest by the rural feel, privacy, lack of crime and space to raise a family.

"A safe place for my kids to grow up, lots of room for them to run around," said Thompson, a computer programmer who moved to a house on a 60-acre lot in 1997.

Five years later, he took in evacuees from a devastating fire in the foothills to the northwest. That drove home the fact that his family was living in a tinderbox. Thompson cut down 20 pine trees to form a firebreak around his house, which he topped with fire retardant roof tiles. He diligently cleared away brush, downed branches and pine cones, like many here do in community cleanups every spring.

"It didn't make a damn difference at the end of the day," Thompson said Thursday. His home was incinerated Tuesday.

"If you're surrounded by people who haven't done anything, it doesn't matter what you do," Thompson said. "It's interesting that you can have a house in a forest and the building code doesn't say anything about the roof design."

That's what makes fire prevention so difficult, said Anne Walker of the Western Governors' Association.

"Local government has ultimate authority over where homes are placed," she said. "You need to look at local ordinances and where homes are placed and what they're made of."

El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, who represents Black Forest, said the commission has tried to ensure that new developments have brush clearance and easy emergency access.

"Sometimes it's just nature," he said. "When you have a fire like this in a semi-arid environment, there's not a lot you can do."

Maketa said firefighters were hampered by a matted layer of pine needles and grass fuel on the forest floor — fuel called "duff." Spot fires below the trees can smoulder for days and even weeks inside it, then blow up. Firefighters see dry matting, Maketa said, "and when you look 10 minutes later, it's full of flames."

The military pitched in, manning roadblocks with Humvees, providing firefighters, plowing fire lines with bulldozers and flying two C-130 cargo planes and several helicopters to drop slurry and water. The aid came from nearby Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy, Peterson Air Force Base, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Buckley Air Force Base and the Colorado National Guard.

Other fires burned in Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon and California.

In Canon City, 50 miles southwest of Black Forest, the 5-square-mile Royal Gorge Fire was 20 per cent contained. It destroyed 20 structures, many at Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, and damaged wooden planks on a suspension bridge 955 feet above the Arkansas River. An aerial tram was destroyed.

A lightning-sparked fire in Rocky Mountain National Park was burning on about 300 acres, less than originally estimated.

___

Associated Press writers Haven Daley and Colleen Slevin contributed to this report.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Jets' coach discusses team's loss to Red Wings

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A goose comes in for a landing Thursday morning through heavy fog on near Hyw 59 just north of Winnipeg - Day 17 Of Joe Bryksa’s 30 day goose challenge - May 24, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Bright sunflowers lift their heads toward the south east skies in a  large sunflower field on Hwy 206 and #1 Thursday Standup photo. July 31,  2012 (Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Would you visit Dalnavert Museum if it reopened?

View Results

Ads by Google