Black Forest Fire: Remains of 2 people found; 360 homes & 15,700 acres burned

38,000 people are part of mandatory evacuation

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. - The remains of two people have been found in the burn zone of the Black Forest Fire.

"We have witnesses that spoke to these two people, one at around 4:20 (p.m. Tuesday) and they said they could see a glow to the west. They were packing their personal belongings, trying to get out.  At 5 o'clock, there's another phone conversation,  the person that they were speaking with said he could hear popping and cracking in the background and they advised they were leaving right now," Sheriff Terry Maketa said during a Thursday evening news conference.

The victims bodies were found in their garage.

"The car doors were open as though they were loading or grabbing things.  All evidence indicates they were planning to leave very quickly” then the fast-moving fire overcame them," Maketa said.

The fire was first reported to authorities around 1 p.m. and the first mandatory evacuations were issued around 2:30 p.m. It's not clear if their home was a part of the initial wave of evacuations.

"The area where there were located is heavily wooded, with a narrow driveway in and with an L off of it," Maketa explained. "It's a very, what I consider, a high-temperature burned area where the fire was obviously crowned and coming through the tops of the trees."

Maketa said the coroner is at the scene to identify the victims. They were reported missing on Tuesday.

Another couple was also reported missing on Tuesday, but they have been found safe, the sheriff said.

The Black Forest Fire has raged for three days and consumed 15,700 acres (or 24-25 square miles) and destroyed 360 homes -- making it the most destructive fire in Colorado history.

It has forced the evacuation of 38,000 people from 13,000 homes.

Maketa said there are a dozen people working to assess the damage and figure out which homes were destroyed and which are still standing.

"We are working to verify, cross reference and validate. We have not let up on that effort, and it will intensify but we're starting in those areas that we know have the most damage and in some cases, especially at night, it's difficult to identify addresses when there's no reference like mailboxes," Maketa said. "Be patient. I know how it is to want to know one way or the other."

The good news is that some progress was made Thursday and it is about 5 percent contained, Type Incident Commander Rich Harvey said Thursday night.

He said 750 firefighters and lots of aircraft are focused on the fire -- one of three major wildfires burning in the state -- and have gained ground on the southern end of the burn zone.

"Not much progress. We've got a long ways to go. But given the weather forecast we faced today with the winds, and that kind of stuff, we're happy with the progress that we made. We did get a few breaks. We had a plan in place to take advantage of those, like cloud cover," Harvey said.

"I am optimistically hopeful that we didn't lose any homes today.  If we did, it would be very few," Maketa said.

Because of the two deaths, a criminal investigation has been launched.

Authorities don't know and haven't had the resources to investigate what caused the fire, but Maketa suspects it may be human-caused. Maketa said he wants to hear from anyone in that area at that time and may be setting up a tip line later.

"We were truly hoping that we could get from day to day without coming across news like this. I can tell you that early on, we expected it to be much more tragic," Maketa said.

He said there was one unconfirmed report of looting, and added that there many law enforcement officers actively patrolling the area to prevent it.

-- Evacuation area expands into Colorado Springs --

Because the fire continues to roar through the heavily wooded neighborhoods in Black Forest, and toward the city of Colorado Springs, officials expanded the mandatory evacuation zone Thursday afternoon to include parts of the city of Colorado Springs.

"We're trying to be cautious, we're trying to be safe," said Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey during a 2 p.m. news conference. 

The newest evacuations impact 1,020 homes and 3,000 people. During part of the afternoon the Colorado Department of Transportation blocked one lane on northbound and southbound Interstate 25,  from Baptist-to Interquest, to reserve the traffic for evacuees and first responders. It reopened around 4:40 p.m.

The new mandatory evacuation area in Colorado Springs is on the north: North Gate and Old North Gate Road on the north; on the south: Flying Horse Club Drive (to include homes south of Flying Horse Club Drive on Barossa Valley Road and Veneto Way)/Vine Cliff Heights/Equinox Drive/Serenity Peak Drive; on the east:  Highway 83 and on the west: Voyager Parkway.

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office also expanded its mandatory evacuation order: West to Sunhills Dr and Granby Rd;  North to Baptist Road including Fox Run Park.

(See evacuation map below or click here if you're on mobile: http://ch7ne.ws/10agjgQ)

-- Fire destroys 360 homes  --

Flare-ups started in the fire zone around 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

7NEWS reporter Eric Lupher was with animal rescue crews in the burn zone when they were told to leave.

"We're getting out. Just got a phone call that fire is blowing up. Unsafe to stay," Lupher tweeted.

The flare-up happened just three hours after the El Paso County Sheriff announced the fire had destroyed 360 homes.

Maketa said they expected high temperatures and high winds to be a problem today.

"We are watching the weather conditions very closely," Maketa said. "The wind is probably our No.1 threat. The winds yesterday really stirred the fire and pushed it in quite a few different directions. We saw the fire travel quite a bit and saw quite a bit of devastation from it."

There is a Red Flag Warning for the area Thursday, said 24/7 Chief Meteorologist Mike Nelson.

The fire has destroyed 360 homes and 14 other homes have been partially damaged, Maketa said during a Thursday morning briefing. Maketa said homes at 79 other addresses could not be verified because of downed trees and fire activity.

"Those numbers are pretty staggering," Maketa said. "Homes we knew were standing yesterday I personally witnessed going down last night."

-- View a complete list of the homes lost: http://ch7ne.ws/150n3dx

Maketa said about 20 deputies worked in dangerous conditions throughout the night to reverify that list.

"I know of two or three occasions where we actually had to pull our units out because they were getting trapped with the activity from this fire," Maketa said.

Last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire had been the most destructive fire in Colorado history with 346 homes lost.  That fire started June 23, 2012 and evacuations peaked at 32,000 on June 27, 2012. The Waldo Canyon Fire, also in the Colorado Springs area,  burned 18,247 acres.

Maketa said the Black Forest Fire has now burned 15,000 acres. There is no containment.

The evacuation area also expanded early Thursday morning to cover more than 38,000 people.

"We do have a very broad evacuation area," Maketa said. "That area to the north and what you're seeing coming out of Douglas County and Elbert County is precautionary because of the fact of the way the winds are expected to blow. We just want to take every precaution to keep citizens safe at this point."

Investigators have already begun work to determine how the fire started. Maketa said arson investigators have started sifting through the ash and looking at burn patterns.

"[It's a] very exhaustive and time-consuming process," Maketa said.

Maketa did share some good news. He said 1,205 homes in the Black Forest area remain unaffected. Some of the homes are in the burn zone.

"We see where homes were lost, they were completely losses, and its series 6-8-10, and then you'll have one standing home," Maketa said.

Officials say University of Colorado at Colorado Springs has opened a shelter for evacuees. 

Emergency Pet shelters have been set up at the following locations:

- Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region 610 Abbot Lane Colorado Springs, Colo. 

- Powers Pet Emergency- Powers and Stetson Hills Ph (719) 473-0482

- Falcon Animal Hospital- Phone (719) 495-1457, 860 Swing Line Road. 

- Palmer Ridge High School 19255 Monument Hill Road Monument, Colo. (for owners staying with pets only at the high school)

 

-- Colorado Governor says faster response is needed  --

 

Gov. John Hickenlooper today selected a Dual-Status Commander, in agreement with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to support wildfire response and relief efforts in Colorado.

Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Peter J. Byrne was appointed Dual-Status Commander and will work with fire incident commanders on the various Colorado fires. 

Dual-status commanders can direct federal active-duty and reserve forces, and state National Guard forces in response to domestic incidents. Byrne worked with incident commanders on Colorado fires last year.

"The Dual-Status Commander will help provide unity of command and effort," Hickenlooper said. "This coordinated effort will help support our wildfire responses. We thank everyone for their extraordinary efforts to help protect lives and property." 

The governor received a dual status command briefing at the incident command center for the Black Forest Fire.

Currently, 140 personnel from the Colorado National Guard are continuing to assist civil authorities with firefighting support at the Black Forest fire in El Paso County, Colo.; in addition to multiple resources and personnel from the U.S. Air Force Academy; Peterson Air Force Base; Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station; Buckley Air Force Base; Fort Carson; the 145th Air Expeditionary Group, North Carolina Air National Guard; and the Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Airlift Wing.

Hickenlooper later talked to reporters at Palmer Lake High School, where many evacuees are staying.  The governor said he met with many of the families, some who had lost their homes to the fire.

Hickenlooper said valuable lessons have already been learned in fighting Colorado wildfires.

"The one thing we learn again and again:  the sooner we get to them, the faster we stop them," he said. "It's got to be faster, we have to figure out how to get resources to a fire -- if it means more trucks that first hour -- that's when we got a chance."

Hickenlooper said the fire was "everywhere" within four hours of its ignition. 

"To constrain it, you need more vehicles  and work crews."

He said air tankers hit the fire "faster than last year."

"All we can do is fight, we just don't quit."

Patty Olney lost her home to the fire.

"It's a feeling you just can not describe to anybody.  You know you look at stuff and it's like your whole life is flashing forward. You're never going to have that again," said Olney  "I knew when I left I would never see that again."

Olney is preaching preparation. She knows what happened to her, can easily happen to anyone.

"People are not losing their houses.  They're losing their lives and dreams and what they worked for forever," she said.  She had lived in her home for the last decade.
 


View Black Forest Fire Evacuation Map in a larger map