Firefighters in Colo. gain on tragic wildfire

1:11 PM, Jun 14, 2013   |    comments
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by Blair Shiff, Steph Solis and John Bacon , USA TODAY

BLACK FOREST, Colo. - Firefighters were claiming modest gains in their fierce battle Friday against a devastating fire that had killed two people and destroyed hundreds of homes.

"We're turning a corner and, although we had just a terrible tragedy, the success of the firefighting efforts was much better" overnight, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said. "I'm not even sure we had any fire losses (of homes) Thursday night, if any, maybe one or two."

He said cloud cover and diminishing winds aided the effort against the blaze, which had been fueled by dry timber, record heat and stiff winds since it began Tuesday.

Incident commander Rich Harvey said deputies brought in to discourage looting aided firefighters by calling in hot spots discovered during patrols.

The fire was burning about 25 square miles Friday after having destroyed close to 400 homes within a few miles of Colorado Springs, the state's second largest city. More than 38,000 people across 70 square miles have been forced to evacuate, Maketa said.

He said the fire was about 5% contained. About 800 firefighters were on the scene, and Maketa said full containment was forecast for June 20. The cause of the blaze had not been determined.

Authorities ordered residents of 1,000 homes in the nearby city of Colorado Springs to evacuate Thursday and told residents of another 2,000 homes to be prepared to leave. Although humidity levels remain very low across Colorado today, the National Weather Service reports that winds are forecast to stay below 20 mph in most areas -- good news for firefighters.

The blaze is now the most destructive in Colorado history, surpassing last year's Waldo Canyon Fire, which burned 347 homes and killed two people.

Black Forest resident Randy Welsch, 57, said his house is in a voluntary evacuation zone, which is not patrolled by police and thus could be susceptible to looting.

"We're staying with our friends over night and during the day we go back to our house," said Welsch, who has lived in the area for 20 years. "It's a big hassle to be out of the house, but it's not the end of the world."

The Black Forest home that Deanna Ronco and her family lived in for 18 years was consumed by the flames. The odyssey began Tuesday afternoon, when Ronco got a call from emergency responders saying the family needed to leave right away.

Ronco started packing up for her five children but didn't bother packing anything sentimental -- she thought they would be back. She remembers the odd sight of smoke blowing in front of the sun and the sky turning a red hue.

Two days later, Ronco learned from a friend who is a volunteer firefighter that her home was gone.

"It's kind of been a roller coaster since then, trying to get my kids taken care of so we can take care of logistics," said Ronco, 40. "The sad part is it's not even over, and we're not even the only ones that have been affected."

That night, she and her husband left their children with friends and got a hotel room for the night so they could grieve for their home. "It's a very surreal feeling," she said.

Blair Shiff reports for KUSA-TV in Denver. Contributing: Melanie Eversley, Lauren Kirkwood, Michael Auslen, and William M. Welch, USA TODAY; Associated Press

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