By: Blair Shiff, Steph Solis and Michael Winter, USA Today
Thousands of anxious residents were expected to return home Saturday after firefighters made progress against a raging wildfire outside Colorado Springs, expanding containment lines and lifting evacuation orders for thousands in the most destructive blaze in state history that has destroyed nearly 500 homes.
Aided by a surprise rain shower and slower fire movement, crews increased containment to 30% on Friday afternoon, up from 5% the previous day. That meant evacuation orders could be lifted for neighborhoods east, north, and west of the fire - areas where as many as 5,000 people are estimated to live, Maketa said.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said he was "pretty confident" that lightning or other natural phenomena would be ruled out as the cause of the fire outside Colorado Springs. The blaze has killed two people, destroyed 473 homes and displaced tens of thousands of residents.
"We didn't have lightning in the area," he said, adding that investigators would try to determine whether the fire was arson or an accident.
The change in weather aided the effort against the blaze, which had been fueled by dry timber, record heat and stiff winds since it began Tuesday.
"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."
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.
Maketa said full containment of the fire is forecast by June 20. About 800 firefighters were on the scene.
The fire was burning about 25 square miles Friday 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.
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 re-opened an eastern swath of the nearby Black Forest area in El Paso County.
Sheriff's deputies patrolling for looters directed crews to dozens of hot spots.
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 theft.
"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.
Southwest of Colorado Springs, authorities opened a major highway and lifted evacuations at the Royal Gorge Fire, which had been 40% contained by early afternoon Friday.
The fire, which started Tuesday near Canon City, had burned more than 3,100 acres and damaged the historic steel-and-wooden-plank Royal Gorge Bridge and destroyed 48 of the park's 52 structures, which include rides, shows and other tourist attractions. The bridge is the highest in the United States.
The park operator and local officials plan to rebuild, the Canon City Daily Record reported.
The cause of the fire has not been determined.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, the lightning-sparked Big Meadow Fire had burned more than 350 acres of wilderness and was 30% contained Friday, four days after it started, officials said. The park remains open.
Other fires burned in Colorado, California and New Mexico. A southern New Mexico fire reached the historic mining town of Kingston, but an official said crews protected buildings there.
Blair Shiff reports for KUSA-TV in Denver. Contributing: Melanie Eversley, Lauren Kirkwood, Michael Auslen, William M. Welch and John Bacon., USA TODAY; Associated Press