COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Authorities lifted evacuations in a wide swath of terrain outside Colorado Springs on Friday as they said a surprise rain shower helped them expand containment of a wildfire that has destroyed 400 homes.
Just one day after clearing out the Flying Horse neighborhood in northern Colorado Springs, officials allowed people back into at least 1,000 houses. They also reopened an eastern swath of the nearby Black Forest area in El Paso County.
Incident Commander Rich Harvey said the Black Forest Fire — the most destructive in Colorado history — is now 30 percent contained. It was only 5 percent contained Thursday.
The fire, in which two people died while apparently trying to escape their home, began Tuesday during record-setting heat and tinder-dry conditions. Officials warned it still could flare up again if the weather shifts.
Crews say they were better prepared to take on the flames because of lessons learned fighting last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire, a similarly devastating blaze that devoured hundreds of homes and killed two people only a few miles away.
When the Black Forest, a thickly wooded rural region north of Colorado Springs, began to burn, authorities swiftly evacuated tens of thousands of people from an area larger than the Denver metropolitan area.
They immediately began hand-counting destroyed houses to get information out to nervous homeowners. And they rushed federal troops and aircraft into action, cutting the red tape that had grounded those resources a year ago as smoke clouds billowed over Colorado.
Within an hour, El Paso County had its emergency operations center up and running and summoned aircraft from nearby Peterson Air Force base. Rep. Doug Lamborn called the federal center in Idaho that coordinates western firefighting to speed up the process of clearing the planes. Gov. John Hickenlooper mobilized the Colorado National Guard, and troops began to help secure the rapidly growing evacuation zone.
“We’ve done it all before and so there was no question,” said Nicola Sapp, El Paso County budget officer.
Before the fire got out of hand, authorities evacuated people miles away, sending deputies door-to-door to ensure everyone left. They remembered the speed at which last year’s fire spread.
“That’s one thing I’ll never forget — how fast that Waldo Canyon Fire moved,” said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, who was bowled over by how rapidly help arrived this week.