BLACK FOREST, Colo. - The mandatory evacuation area for the Black Forest Fire expanded to the north and west on Wednesday afternoon while law enforcement inside the fire area worked to assess the damage.
The El Paso County Sheriff's Office released an assessment showing 92 homes were declared a total loss, but others were seen burning even as that count was prepared for release.
"The fire has now doubled back. Properties that we identified as standing are now engulfed in flames, so the count and the numbers are changing as I speak," said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa during a 5 p.m. fire update.
Maketa said the fire's official acreage was still 8,500 but is expected to increase to 11,000 or 12,000 acres when better mapping is completed.
The Northern boundary of the evacuation was extended to Walker Road and western boundary was extended to Highway 83 at 1 p.m. It extends to the south at Burgess Road/Rex Road and east at Eastonville Road. A pre-evacuation zone extends farther east, to Elbert Road and south to Stapleton Drive/Old Ranch Road.
"As our guys are going in to check homes, they're actually having to abandon those roads because of the direction and travel of the fire and how rapid it is changing," said Sheriff Maketa.
The Elbert County Sheriff announced an evacuation of southern Elbert County from the county line north to County Road 106 on north and N. Elbert Road on the east. The Elbert County Post Office was evacuated just before 3 p.m. Wednesday. All USPS personnel, mail, and operations have been evacuated to the nearby Kiowa Post Office.
Sheriff Maketa said 9,000 to 9,500 people are in the evacuation area which includes 3,400 residences, 150 commercial buildings and 200 outbuildings, such as barns. He said conditions were very dry.
"The possibilities for this fire to continue to spread are extreme," he said.
By 5 p.m., 487 firefighters were battling the blaze, including personnel from 28 local fire districts. They are backed by 112 law enforcement officers from eight law enforcement agencies, including Denver. Colorado National Guard and Fort Carson soldiers were taking over some fire checkpoints so that law enforcement could concentrate on more pressing fire matters.
-- Pre-evacuation zones expand --
The City of Colorado Springs issued a voluntary evacuation area just before 3 p.m. It is west to I-25 and all areas north of Old Ranch Road within the City limits of Colorado Springs
The Douglas County Sheriff announced a pre-evacuation for the area bounded by Highway 83 on the west, the county line on the east, Gillian on the north and the county line on the south.
Residents in the El Paso County pre-evacuation area are advised to be prepared to evacuate as the unpredictable winds push the fire southeast.
"Why take a risk? I have family in town," said Sherry Krenz, who lives west of Highway 83. "We packed up my car and my son's car. I took pictures of everything in the house, and I'm not staying in the house tonight."
(See images of wildfire engulfing homes: http://ch7ne.ws/18ui2RK )
The Red Cross has set up three shelters for evacuees. The shelters are at Palmer Ridge High School, New Life Church and the Elbert County Fairgrounds. Small animals and pets can also be taken to Palmer Ridge but no animals are allowed at New Life Church.
Meanwhile, the Red Cross announced that their shelter at New Life Church was closed due to heavy smoke. People there were moved to Palmer Ridge High School.
Large animals can be taken to the Elbert County Fairgrounds. The Norris Penrose Equestrian Center was full of evacuated animals.
The Elbert County Sheriff said there are approximately 900 evacuees at the Fairgrounds, in addition to 150 horses and other farm animals.
More than 7,000 people live in the area according to El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa.
Pictures from reporters in the area show the flames and smoke increasing Wednesday afternoon. Airtracker 7 showed homes engulfed in flames at 8 a.m. Wednesday. (See AirTracker photos: http://ch7ne.ws/194wpcd )
The fire has burned more than 8,000 acres, and 80 to 100 homes have been destroyed, Maketa said.
Officials started assessing the damage to the homes at 4 a.m. Wednesday, methodically going through street by street to see which homes were slightly damaged and which were destroyed.
"From the exterior, we may see minor, partial damage but the reality is, until we get in and really research it, it could be a total loss," Maketa said.
Information about which homes were burned in the wildfire is expected to be released Wednesday afternoon but Maketa cautioned that it was only preliminary and the status of the property could change, depending on the shifting winds and the weather today.
"This fire is far from under control or extinguished," Maketa said. "It's one of those things where you're very hesitant to say, 'This house is fine' when we have so much fire activity.'"
No injuries have been reported and no missing persons have been reported but Maketa worried that there are people who didn't heed the evacuation orders and they paid for it with their lives.
"We had people that refused to leave. We had people walking out at 2 - 2:30 a.m. after the fire had blown through," Maketa said. "Part of the assessment we're going to be going through is verifying those locations where people did not evacuate. And one of my worst fears is that people took their chances and it may have cost them their life. I know we have people who stayed in there and I have concerns that we could be facing a tragedy that involves people. Let's hope it's not the case."
He said the priorities on Wednesday are saving lives, protecting firefighters and then saving property.
The cause of the fire is not known but it started around 1 p.m. Tuesday on the southwest corner of the evacuation zone, near Shoup and Falcon roads.
"The fire originally began to move somewhat to the north, up toward the Cathedral Pines, and that's about the time the winds kicked in and it started really flowing northeast and then turned to south and southeast. It's kind of our beginning point and I think we can say that through the center of that is the where we saw 'concentrated destruction,'" Maketa said.
He compared this fire to Colorado's most destructive fire, the Waldo Canyon Fire, which destroyed more than 300 homes last June in the Colorado Springs area.
"What makes this one very challenging is it began in a residential area, essentially. You had active homes, you had people going about their daily business. You had parents at work, and children at home, and I think that effort complicated it. In addition to the fact that the winds directly carried it -- not away from other residential properties -- but directly into some higher density properties. The rate it was spotting ahead of itself and affecting residential property ... " Maketa said. "When you look at Waldo, the night it came into Mountain Shadows, it was almost reliving that experience again, except in one single incident in one day."
--Progress on fire, but weather today will be challenging --
There is not a single fire line because the wildfire has been so spotty with scattered fire activity everywhere, Maketa said.
"It was almost like a huge convention of campfires everywhere and periodically you'd just see trees pop into a fireball," Maketa said.
What's also complicating matters is that the area has no fire hydrants.
"The Black Forest area lacks fire hydrant systems and you're seeing the trucks go in and engage and they'll quickly run through their water and then pull out to tankers that are parked and waiting. With each of those efforts you're losing time and you're losing square footage," Maketa said.
However, crews were able to hold the fire lines on Meridian, and on the south and southeast side overnight, Maketa said.
A Red Flag Warning remains in effect for the area Wednesday as firefighters prepare for unpredictable conditions today. Winds are expected to gust to 20-30 mph with temperatures climbing to the 90s.
"It is still very hot and active fire area. Even this morning you could hear explosions around some of the frontlines of the fire from propane tanks and other fuel sources," Maketa said.
-- More resources coming to fire --
Maketa said that 155 firefighters and 48 helicopters are working the blaze and more resources are expected to arrive throughout the day.
About 130 law enforcement officers and National Guard troops are helping with the evacuations, assessing property damage, monitoring traffic controls and patrolling the evacuation zones to protect it from looters.
El Paso County has also seen support from numerous fire and law enforcement agencies around Colorado and military aircraft.
The Fort Carson Fire Department and the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade were called to help firefighting efforts on Tuesday. Several helicopters, including two Chinooks and two Blackhawks, were seen making water drops in the area.
The Modular Airborne Firefighting System, called "MAFFS," based at Peterson Air Force Base will be deployed to fight this fire, according to Congressman Doug Lamborn's spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen.
A Type 3 incident command team is currently in charge of the fire, but Maketa said he expected to have a Type I team assigned to the wildfire during the day Wednesday.
The sheriff has requested an additional 7 to 8 strike teams, but it's not clear if the state will send those resources over to Black Hawk with four other wildfires burning in Colorado.
Besides the Black Forest Fire, firefighters are also battling wildfires near the Royal Gorge, at Rocky Mountain National Park and near the southern Colorado town of La Veta.
-- Resources --
The next media update will be at 5 p.m.
For information on the fire call 719-444-8300. Use this number instead of calling local emergency numbers.
See below for the map of the evacuation zone, based on the most recently updated information or click here if you're on mobile: http://ch7ne.ws/10agjgQ
View Black Forest Fire Evacuation Map in a larger map