Black Forest Fire now 65% contained, no structures lost overnight

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BLACK FOREST, Colo. -- Firefighters managed to keep the Black Forest Fire from growing and increased their containment estimate to 65 percent, officials announced Sunday morning.

The latest property assessment as of Sunday at noon indicated that 482 homes had been lost in the Black Forest Fire, 17 homes partially damaged, and 3,600 homes have been unaffected.

"I feel good about the progress that has been made," said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa during a noon news conference. "I'm also seeing some reminders that we have a lot of fire spread throughout the area."

It was also good news for the 1,400 to 1,500 households that were allowed to go back

Black Forest Fire residents wait in traffic to return to their homes on Hwy 83 near Walker Road Saturday night (Photo: Greg Nieto)

Black Forest Fire residents wait in traffic to return to their homes on Hwy 83 near Walker Road Saturday night (Photo: Greg Nieto)

home on Saturday night.

Fire Incident Commander Rich Harvey said firefighters would continue to work on securing the perimeter of the fire with particular focus on the northwest side.

Around 350 firefighters are battling the blaze, which started Tuesday afternoon.

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office disclosed Sunday that it has cost $5,200,000 to fight the fire so far.

Harvey also announced a three-phase plan where teams of firefighters would sweep through the burn zone, mopping up hot spots and ensuring the fire would not flare up.

"Part of the problem with this fire is that it's not a traditional 'Get the perimeter controlled and we get to go home,'" Harvey said. "There is so much green and black and unburned and all that stuff in the middle that we need to take care of."

Maketa said deputies continue to patrol the interior of the evacuation zone looking out for potential looters.  Between 20 to 40 law enforcement personnel are patrolling the area -- more than would typically be working in a 24-hour period.

"I could not drive a street last night without seeing a deputy," Maketa said.

During a Saturday evening press conference, Sheriff Maketa said they are very near the end of the home assessment, with 100 more homes left to be evaluated.

Officials also said that it could take several days, or even weeks before people have "free" access to the burn zone.

"It looks like a nuclear bomb went off in some of those areas," and homes are unrecognizable, he said.

Deputies will also be following up on a list of 92 people they have identified who refused to evacuate. Two of those people lived at a home that is confirmed to have burned down, Maketa said.

For 14 other people, there was no assessment of what condition their home is, Maketa said. Deputies were "working diligently" to proactively find these people before they become a missing person case, he added.

Two people have died in the fire. Their remains were found in a garage as they appeared to be preparing to evacuate, Maketa said Thursday.

The cause of the fire has still not been determined although Maketa said it appears likely that it was started by a person.  It remains to be seen if the it was accidental or not.

The weather forecast for the weekend is encouraging for firefighters with highs in the low 80s and the potential for light rain.

"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.

A thunderstorm passed over the fire zone late Friday afternoon and it brought brief but welcome rain. Saturday's weather was calm with no thunderstorms over the area, which helped firefighters build a fireline, especially on its western flank.

Officials said Sunday that a there is still a threat to structures within the fire perimeter because of extremely dry fuels and potential winds from passing thunderstorms. The chance for thunderstorms increases Sunday afternoon.

Evacuations lifted for Colorado Springs, Elbert County

Officials lifted the mandatory evacuation orders for areas within the Colorado Springs city limits and in Elbert County.

Mandatory Evacuations remained in place for El Paso County around the fire.  Those areas on mandatory evacuation included:

West Boundary -- Hwy 83, from Burgess Rd to Walker Rd
East Boundary  -- Meridian Rd, from Burgess Rd north to the County Line
South Boundary -- Burgess Rd, Hwy 83 to Meridian Rd
North Boundary -- Walker Rd from Hwy 83 east to Black Forest, east to Meridian.

Sheriff Maketa announced that 25 to 30 percent of mandatory evacuation areas were downgraded to a pre-evacuation status Saturday night. County Line Road to the north, Walker Road and Hodgen Road to the south, the area west of Meridian Road, as well as High Forest Ranch are now under pre-evacuation.

The newly downgraded evacuation areas were open at 8 p.m. Saturday night.

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.

Walker Road and Meridian Road are still closed.

According to CDOT, Highway 83 is now open in both directions from Powers Blvd to Highway 105 and Walker Road.

MAP: City and county evacuation areas

A tip line and email address are set up for anyone with information about the case: 719-444-8397 or email BlackForestFireTipLine@elpasoco.com.

The loss of 480 homes makes the Black Forest Fire the most destructive in terms of property loss Colorado history, eclipsing last year's Waldo Canyon Fire. That fire destroyed 346 homes and burned around 18,000 acres.

Evacuation centers

The Red Cross is now operating shelters in the following locations:

Palmer Ridge High School (19255 Monument Rd., Monument). As of noon Thursday, there were 109 people registered there.

Small animal assistance was being offered at Powers Pet Emergency, which can be reached at 719-473-0482.

Residents can call 719-444-8393, or email authorities for info at blackforestfiretipline@elpasoco.com for more information about the fire.

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