COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Firefighters worked to get more people evacuated by Colorado's most destructive wildfire back home Sunday by digging up and extinguishing hot spots to protect homes still standing near Colorado Springs.
The labor-intensive work is necessary because extremely dry grass and trees could quickly ignite if wind stirs up one of those hot spots. The grass has less than 3 percent humidity, which incident command spokesman Brandon Hampton said is about as bad as having matches lying on the ground in densely-wooded Black Forest.
"We want to get people back in their homes and resuming normal lives, and we want to do it as quickly and safely as we can," Hampton said.
Nearly 500 homes have been burned by the fire, which is 55 percent contained after advances in recent days thanks in part to lighter winds. It's now estimated to be about 22 square miles and crews hope to have it fully contained by Thursday.
Evacuees outside the burn area have already been allowed back. Residents of areas burned by the fire were able to return briefly to see the devastation Saturday. Jack and Judy Roe thought their home was among the nearly 500 destroyed but found it standing Saturday amid other scorched houses in their neighborhood.
"We've been on such an emotional roller coaster over this thinking we had lost everything and then to find out that it's still there. It was a big relief to us, but I mean, our hearts were breaking for our neighbors," Judy Roe said. Describing the scene, she said she saw charred piles of what remained of homes, with bricks the only distinguishable feature.
Bob and Barbara Metzger lost their home, while nearby by their SUV, clotheslines and surrounding trees were spared.
"As long as the world around me looks the same, I'll be fine," Barbara Metzger said, showing a photo of her burnt home with surviving trees around. "We'll rebuild."
Authorities have also gained a clearer picture of a grim landscape in a burn area covering 25 square miles.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said the fire's destruction has made it difficult for his deputies to assess damage. Deputies say "it looks like a nuclear bomb went off in some of those areas, and you can't even recognize whether it was a house or some other kind of structure," Maketa said. "That is the level of incineration and destruction that took place in some areas."
The fire exploded Tuesday amid record-setting heat and tinder-dry conditions. Two people have died, their bodies found inside their garage Thursday. Their car doors were open as though they had been about to flee, authorities said.
It's unknown what sparked the blaze, but investigators believe it was human-caused. So far, it's cost more than $5.2 million to fight.
The site of the wildfire is only a few miles away from the state's second most destructive wildfire, the Waldo Canyon Fire, which burned last summer.
The memory of that fire seems to have made residents especially appreciative of firefighters. Hampton said about a 1,000 people turned out to line the road and cheer firefighters as they returned from lines Saturday night.
Some of the aircraft used to fight the Black Forest Fire in the early days have been moved to fight a nearly 700-acre wildfire near Rifle Falls State Park in western Colorado. That fire erupted Friday from a smoldering lightning strike the day before, spokesman Pat Thrasher said. The residents of 12 homes were told to evacuate along with campers in the park as well as Rifle Mountain Park and the nearby White River National Forest.
Crews were closer to containing other wildfires that broke out around the same time as the Black Forest Fire. In Canon City, 50 miles to the southwest, a fire that destroyed 48 buildings at Royal Gorge Bridge & Park was 85 percent contained and the park's scenic railroad was running again. A lightning-sparked fire in Rocky Mountain National Park had burned nearly 500 acres and was 60 percent contained.
Associated Press writer Colleen Slevin contributed to this report from Denver.