COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Crews battling the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history 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 thickly wooded rural region north of Colorado Springs known as the Black Forest began to burn this week, authorities swiftly evacuated tens of thousands of people from a swath of land 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. Everybody jumped right in.
The cause of the blaze is under investigation.
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.
The latest blaze raced through the rural reaches of the metro area, doubling in size overnight and charring at least 400 homes. The bodies of two people were found inside their garage Thursday, their car doors open as if they had been about to flee.
Some Waldo Canyon evacuees endured days without knowing whether their houses survived. So Maketa sent deputies in at night to survey neighborhoods. It was a painstaking, risky process as ashes smoldered around them while they strained to determine the addresses of charred properties. About 24 hours later, the department began releasing the addresses of houses that were lost.
It might take two weeks to get a perfect count, but the sheriff decided to err on the side of rapidly releasing information.
By Friday, firefighters reported some progress. The blaze was only 5 percent contained and could take another devastating turn at any moment. In a sign of the quick improvement, authorities lifted evacuation orders in a northern slice of Colorado Springs, the state’s second-largest city, which had impacted 1,000 homes.
Firefighters were also aided by some rainfall in the burn area.
Hickenlooper toured the zone and said he was happily drenched.
I’m soaking wet, and I’m a little chilly, but I’ve never been so happy to say this, he said.