COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — With evacuees anxious to return, firefighters worked Sunday to dig up and extinguish hot spots to protect homes spared by the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history.
The labor-intensive work is necessary because extremely dry grass and trees could quickly ignite if wind stirs up hot spots in the densely wooded Black Forest near Colorado Springs.
Firefighters did get some help from the weather as steady rain moved through the area Sunday afternoon. But that weather came with some lightning, which sparked a small grass fire near one home.
“Every bit of rain helps the crews mop up. It’s just adding another nail in the coffin,” fire spokesman Brandon Hampton said.
Nearly 500 homes have been burned by the 22-square-mile fire, which is 65 percent contained. Crews hope to have it fully under control by Thursday.
Even though the fire was no longer active enough on Sunday to produce a large smoke plume, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said it wasn’t safe for people to return home until roads and downed power lines were repaired.
Additionally, the death of two unidentified people trying to flee the fire was still being investigated. Maketa said he was in no rush to have people return to an area that, at least for now, was still being considered a crime scene.
“I’m not going to compromise the evidence by allowing people in too soon,” he said.
Some evacuees outside the burn area have been allowed back home. Those with property in the burn area have returned with escorts to check on their property or to pick up items, but Maketa said some were then refusing to leave once they were done. He urged fire victims to cooperate or risk being arrested.
Trudy Dawson, 59, was at work when the fire broke out Tuesday and quickly spread in record-breaking heat and strong winds. Her 25-year-old daughter, Jordan, who was on her way from Denver to visit, spotted the smoke, called her mother and went to the house.
With only 30 minutes to evacuate, she only had time to find a family cat and to open a corral gate so the horses could flee.
Jordan and two adult siblings went to the property the next day with a sheriff’s escort and found the horses, unhurt, standing in their corral.
“It was just skeletons of vehicles and ash everywhere. It’s haunting. It looks like it’s right out of a horror movie,” Jordan Dawson said.
It’s unknown what sparked the blaze, but investigators believe it was human-caused and have asked for help from the state and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as they sift through the ash.
It’s only a few miles away from the state’s second most destructive wildfire, the Waldo Canyon Fire, which burned last summer.
The memory of that fire may have made residents especially appreciative of firefighters. About 1,000 people turned out to line the road and cheer firefighters as they returned from lines Saturday night, fire spokesman Brandon Hampton said.
Some of the aircraft used to fight the Black Forest Fire and other Front Range fires have been moved to fight a nearly 500-acre wildfire near Rifle Falls State Park in western Colorado. That fire erupted Friday from a smoldering lightning strike the day before, spokesman Pat Thrasher said. The residents of 12 homes were ordered to leave along with campers in the park as well as Rifle Mountain Park and the nearby White River National Forest.
Crews were closer to containing other wildfires that broke out around the same time as Black Forest. In Canon City, 50 miles to the southwest, a fire that destroyed 48 buildings at Royal Gorge Bridge & Park was 85 percent contained and the park’s scenic railroad was running again. A lightning-sparked fire in Rocky Mountain National Park had burned nearly 500 acres and was 60 percent contained.
In New Mexico, crews were trying to protect homes in a historic mining town from a 35-square mile wildfire that had prompted 26 people to leave their homes.
Associated Press writer Colleen Slevin contributed to this report from Denver.