EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — Ninety-two home owners got the news they were dreading Wednesday afternoon when the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office released a list of homes that were a “total loss” after being charred by the Black Forest Fire.
The number of homes destroyed is certain to increase in the coming days as the out-of-control fire continues to burn. Another five homes have been damaged, said Sheriff Terry Maketa.
He said 315 homes appeared to be unaffected.
In total, Maketa said the fire displaced between 9,000 and 9,500 residents in 3,400 homes.
The fire grew to 8,500 acres Wednesday afternoon as was 0 percent contained. Officials anticipated the fire would continue to grow by 3,000 acres.
Thankfully, as of Wednesday afternoon, there were no reports of casualties, but one person might be missing, Maketa said.
“I don’t want people to underestimate it,” he said at an afternoon news conference. “This fire is very dangerous.”
Evacuation zones grow as does fire
The fire shifted directions several times since starting around 1 p.m. Tuesday. It forced emergency officials to continue to expand their evacuation and pre-evacuation zones, including areas of north Colorado Springs and South Elbert County.
In Black Forest, the mandatory evacuation zone was bordered by Walker Road/Evans Road to the north, Highway 83 to the west, Eastonville Road to the east and Burgess Road/Rex Road to the south.
Areas on pre-evacuation notice include:
Area 1 – Burgess Road south to Stapelton Drive, and Volmer Road east to Meridian Road.
Area 2 – Latigo Blvd. south to Stapelton Drive, and Meridian Road east to Highway 24.
Area 3 – Guy Ranch Road south to Stapelton Road, and Eastonville Road east to Elbert Road.
Area 4 – Burgess Road south to Old Ranch Road and Poco Road, and Milam Road east to Volmer Road.
In north Colorado Springs, the voluntary, pre-evacuation area included Highway 83 west to Interstate 25 and all areas north of Northgate Blvd. to Highway 105. This area expanded Wednesday night. See the new map here.
“A Voluntary Evacuation means that the fire is moving closer to you,” the city said in a statement. “A mandatory evacuation order may be issued at any time. Now is the time to prepare for immediate evacuation. If you think that you may have complications evacuation, or need assistance evacuation now may be the best time to leave.”
The Elbert County Sheriff’s Office also ordered mandatory evacuations. The area is north of the fire and includes west of N. Elbert Road and south of County Road 106.
Additional air resources, firefighters called to help fire
A Type I incident command team has arrived and was expected to take command of the fire at 6 a.m. Thursday. The team is considered the most experienced in fighting large fires.
It will be familiar territory for Incident Commander Rich Harvey, who lead the battle to contain the Waldo Canyon Fire, the most destructive fire in Colorado history, last year.
Dry conditions, high heat and winds from the south sustained at 20 mph fueled the fire Wednesday. The forecast calls for another windy, hot day on Thursday.
Maketa said air resources from the National Guard and Fort Carson have been "heavily engaged" in fighting the fire. Video from SkyFOX showed a C-130 making slurry drops along with a Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters making water drops.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has singed three Executive Orders declaring the Black Forest (as well as two other large fires burning in Colorado at the Royal Gorge and Klikus fires. This frees up state money to help fight the fires.
“Everywhere you looked you saw scattered fires, almost like there was a huge convention of campfires everywhere." Maketa said Wednesday morning. "Periodically, you’d see trees pop into a fireball.”
No cause for the fire has been released. Maketa said it originated in the area of Falcon Drive and Shoup Drive. From there it moved to the north before high winds pushed the fire rapidly east, he said.
No injuries have been reported as of Wednesday morning, but Maketa said he was worried that those reports could change later in the day.
"We are aware that not everyone followed evacuation orders," Maketa said. "There is the possibility that we could see tragedy in the form of the loss of life."
He said he hasn't received any reports of missing people, but he knows some people in an evacuation area refused to leave. "One of my worst fears is that people (might) have taken chances," and "I do have concerns we could be facing a tragedy," Maketa said.
Residents say they feel shaken, helpless
Morgan Pace felt said she felt hopeless as she drove past a large plume of smoke near her home in Monument.
"It was just surreal," said Pace
Pace, a 38-year-old mother four, is among the tens of thousands affected directly and indirectly by the Black Forest Fire.
So, too, is Lisa Aggarwal. After a sleepless night, she packed up and left her Colorado Springs home on Wednesday -- a hot and blue sky day, except for the looming smoke -- along with her three young children.
"My family is scared and just trying to remain calm," Aggarwal, said.
Palmer Ridge High School (19255 Monument Rd., Monument) was set up as an evacuation center. New Life Church in Colorado Springs was also an evacuation center, but was evacuated due to heavy smoke on Wednesday afternoon. Evacuees were all being transferred to Palmer Ridge High.
On Wednesday morning, deputies tweeted that the El Paso County Fairgrounds was accepting RVs and campers, and that electricity and showers were available.
A large animal shelter was set up at the Elbert County fairgrounds at 95 Ute Avenue in Kiowa (Phone: 303-718-3343), deputies said. Small animal assistance was being offered at Powers Pet Emergency, which can be reached at 719-473-0482.
Residents can call 719-444-8300 for more information about the fire.