Black Forest Fire: Some evacuations lifted; 30% contained; 419 homes lost; 2 dead

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BLACK FOREST, Colo. - Containment on the Black Forest Fire jumped from 5 percent to 30 percent on Friday,  such significant progress that the city of Colorado Springs lifted its mandatory evacuations and El Paso County lifted its evacuations for those living west of Highway 83 and east of Meridian Road.

Those residents will be allowed to go home but will be asked for identification at the checkpoints.

All pre-evacuation notices for Douglas County have also been lifted.

However, voluntary evacuations remain from North Gate and Old North Gate to Interquest and Highway 83 to Voyager Parkway and those living west of Highway 83.

Rain briefly fell over the area around 3 p.m. Friday.

7NEWS Meteorologist Matt Makens said the amount of rain over the fire area was about a tenth of an inch.

"It's not a lot, but a blessing. That's 42.6 million gallons of water that fell on the assumed 15,700 acres of fire area.  That's roughly 3,672 DC-10 drops, assuming that a DC-10 can drop about 11,000 gallons each time," Makens said.

With the rain came several hundred lightning strikes, but those didn't appear to cause any harm, Makens said.

The area has been cloudy and relatively cool for most of the day, great news for firefighters on the front lines.

"I'm so wet and a little chilly and I've never been happier to say that." Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a Friday afternoon briefing. He also was encouraged about the progress of the fire and the spirit that the residents  have shown in the face of adversity.

"The whole state is behind you. This is a resilient county and this is a resilient state," Hickenlooper said.

Officials at the Black Forest Fire remain very optimistic about getting a handle on the blaze even as the number of homes destroyed continues to climb because more homes are being assessed for damage.

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office tweeted at 8:30 p.m. Friday that 419 homes have been destroyed, according to the latest assessment. Fifteen homes have partial damage and 2,645 homes are unaffected.

View a complete list of the homes lost: http://www.epcsheriff.com/bff/Black%20Forest%20Fire%20-%20Residences.pdf

"We did not lose large chunks of land last night," El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said during a news conference at 9 a.m. Friday. "It was kind of that turning point we've been looking for."

"The firefighters had a good night," Incident Commander Rich Harvey agreed.

Harvey said no ground was lost and no new structures burned overnight.

"(We're ) very optimistic about the day," Harvey said.

Maketa even joked that Friday was a good day to get your car washed, in hopes that the action might bring rain to the area.

Maketa said 38,000 people remain evacuated in a 93,000-acre area.

Officials announced Thursday that the fire had also taken the lives of two people. 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" as the fast-moving fire overcame them, Maketa said.

Maketa said the fire is now a homicide investigation because two people died.

"We investigate it and treat it as though it's a crime until we prove otherwise," said Maketa.

The Black Forest Fire has burned 15,500 acres (or 24 to 25 square miles). The loss of 419 homes makes the Black Forest Fire the most destructive fire in Colorado history.

Last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire, also in El Paso County, 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 burned 18,247 acres.

-- Investigating the Fire --

Maketa said investigators believe they are close to finding the place where the fire started.

"We have an active investigation for the cause of this fire," Maketa said. "We’re narrowing down what we believe is the point of origin."

The sheriff said it is likely human-caused but it's not clear if it was arson or an accident.

"I'm pretty confident that natural causes will be out the window," Maketa said.

To help investigations, the sheriff's office has set up two ways for people to submit tips -- a phone line at 719-444-8393 and an email address: blackforestfiretipline@elpasoco.com

Maketa said he hoped anyone who has photos to share with investigators would send them via email.

He also said that there were no reports of looting or burglaries overnight.

-- Fighting the Fire --

There are more than 1,000 people assigned to fighting the Black Forest Fire and providing other services.

There are about 800 firefighters on the ground in addition to police officers, sheriff's deputies, National Guard members and other military members, officials said.

Harvey said there will be several air tankers and helicopters fighting the fire from above Friday -- the same number that they saw on Thursday.

Harvey said thanks to deputies patrolling in the fire zone, firefighters were able to respond to several fires overnight and protect structures that were in danger.

"They took 40 to 45 calls that came in to us from law enforcement, about 25 percent of those calls resulted in firefighters being able to take direct intervention action that directly resulted in saving structures, " Harvey said.

Maketa commended the use of all the local, federal, and military resources to tackle the blaze.

"I have never seen a response to a fire that I've seen now," Maketa said.

-- Evacuation area expands --

On Thursday, the city of Colorado Springs issued a mandatory evacuation for the Flying Horse neighborhood.

"We don't think the fire is going to move into the neighborhood," Colorado Springs Fire Chief Tommy Smith said, clarifying that it was a precautionary measure.

However, the evacuation order remains in place. Smith said they would reassess the situation on Saturday.

"We want to err on the side of caution," Smith said.

And the weather may help firefighters Friday and over the weekend. There is no Red Flag Warning issued for anywhere in the state and high temperatures in the Black Forest area are expected to be close to 87 degrees, with winds gusting 15-30 mph.

Over the weekend, more clouds will be moving in and fewer wind gusts are predicted.

Of the thousands of people who were forced to flee from their homes, 234 stayed overnight at the three Red Cross shelters set up in the area.

The shelters  are  located at Palmer Ridge High School,  Elbert County Fairgrounds,  University of Colorado Colorado Springs Recreation Center.

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


View Black Forest Fire Evacuation Map in a larger map

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