BLACK FOREST, Colo. - The Black Forest Fire continues to burn additional homes and land north of Colorado Springs Wednesday and the 7,000-plus evacuees forced to flee yesterday will likely be out of their homes all day, the sheriff's office said.
Images from NewsChannel5's sister station KMGH showed homes engulfed in flames at 8 a.m. as the fire appeared to continued to rage out of control.
"It was a very, very hot fire at 5 a.m. this morning," El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said during a Wednesday morning briefing. "Last night obviously the plume died down - that's usually an indicator of activity but the reality was that we still had a lot of fire taking place. It's still a hot and very active fire area."
The fire has burned more than 8,000 acres, and 80 to 100 homes have been destroyed, Maketa said.
Officials started assessing the damage to the homes at 4 a.m. Wednesday, methodically going through street by street to see which homes were slightly damaged and which were destroyed.
"From the exterior, we may see minor, partial damage but the reality is, until we get in and really research it, it could be a total loss," Maketa said.
Information about which homes were burned in the wildfire is expected to be released Wednesday afternoon but Maketa cautioned that it was only preliminary and the status of the property could change, depending on the shifting winds and the weather today.
"This fire is far from under control or extinguished," Maketa said. "It's one of those things where you're very hesitant to say, 'This house is fine' when we have so much fire activity."
The mandatory evacuation area is a "heavily timbered area" that includes about 48 square miles, 2,625 homes and impacts 7,358 people who live in the area, Maketa said.
The boundaries of the mandatory evacuation area are bordered on the west by Tahosa Lane/Pergrine Way, south by Burgess Road/Rex Road, east by Eastonville Road and north by Hodgen Road.
Mandatory evacuations will remain in effect for the remainder of the day, Maketa said.
-- No injuries but sheriff fears people stayed behind --
No injuries have been reported and no missing persons have been reported but Maketa worried that there are people who didn't heed the evacuation orders and they paid for it with their lives.
"We had people that refused to leave. We had people walking out at 2 - 2:30 a.m. after the fire had blown through," Maketa said. "Part of the assessment we're going to be going through is verifying those locations where people did not evacuate. And one of my worst fears is that people took their chances and it may have cost them their life. I know we have people who stayed in there and I have concerns that we could be facing a tragedy that involves people. Let's hope it's not the case."
He said the priorities on Wednesday are saving lives, protecting firefighters and then saving property.
The cause of the fire is not known but it started around 1 p.m. on the southwest corner of the evacuation zone, near Shoup and Falcon roads.
"The fire originally began to move somewhat to the north, up toward the Cathedral Pines, and that's about the time the winds kicked in and it started really flowing northeast and then turned to south and southeast. It's kind of our beginning point and I think we can say that through the center of that is the where we saw 'concentrated destruction,'" Maketa said.
He compared this fire to Colorado's most destructive fire, the Waldo Canyon Fire, which destroyed more than 300 homes last June in the Colorado Springs area.
"What makes this one very challenging is it began in a residential area, essentially. You had active homes, you had people going about their daily business. You had parents at work, and children at home, and I think that effort complicated it. In addition to the fact that the winds directly carried it -- not away from other residential properties -- but directly into some higher density properties. The rate it was spotting ahead of itself and affecting residential property ... " Maketa said. "When you look at Waldo, the night it came into Mountain Shadows, it was almost reliving that experience again except in one single incident in one day."
-- Residents south and east of evacuation zone told to prepare --
A pre-evacuation order was announced for the area south of Burgess Road, east of Milam Road, north of Stapleton Drive and west of Elbert Road.
Residents in that area are advised to be prepared to evacuate as the unpredictable winds push the fire southeast.
"We are expecting winds to blow toward the east today and move into the south. And then we anticipate the winds to double-back and could push the fire to the west again by mid-afternoon," Maketa said.
The Red Cross has set up three shelters for evacuees. The shelters are at Palmer Ridge High School, New Life Church and the Elbert County Fairgrounds. Small animals and pets can also be taken to Palmer Ridge but no animals are allowed at New Life Church.
Large animals can
be taken to the Elbert County Fairgrounds. The Norris Penrose Equestrian Center was full of evacuated animals.
Ben Mulnix spent the night at a shelter.
Mulnix said a deputy with the El Paso County Sheriff's office came to his door in the middle of the afternoon and warned him to be ready to leave. Within 20 minutes, he was told he had to evacuate. Not prepared, he grabbed his dogs and medication, then got out the door.
"I didn't have anything packed. I've never thought about having something like that prepared, I will next time. If there is a next time," Mulnix said.
Thomas Garmong said the smoke was heavy in his area as they fled the area.
"Just grabbed what I could and threw it in the truck. The wife and kids got to a hotel so they're safe, so that's good. But I'm trying to figure out what to do next," Garmong said.
--Progress on fire, but weather today will be challenging --
There is not a single fire line because the wildfire has been so spotty with scattered fire activity everywhere, Maketa said.
"It was almost like a huge convention of campfires everywhere and periodically you'd just see trees pop into a fireball," Maketa said.
What's also complicating matters is that the area has no fire hydrants.
"The Black Forest area lacks fire hydrant systems and you're seeing the trucks go in and engage and they'll quickly run through their water and then pull out to tankers that are parked and waiting. With each of those efforts you're losing time and you're losing square footage," Maketa said.
However, crews were able to hold the fire lines on Meridian, and on the south and southeast side overnight, Maketa said.
A Red Flag Warning remains in effect for the area Wednesday as firefighters prepare for unpredictable conditions today. Winds are expected to gust to 20-30 mph with temperatures climbing to the 90s.
"It is still very hot and active fire area. Even this morning you could hear explosions around some of the frontlines of the fire from propane tanks and other fuel sources," Maketa said.
-- More resources coming to fire --
Maketa said that 155 firefighters and 48 helicopters are working the blaze and more resources are expected to arrive throughout the day.
About 130 law enforcement officers and National Guard troops are helping with the evacuations, assessing property damage, monitoring traffic controls and patrolling the evacuation zones to protect it from looters.
El Paso County has also seen support from numerous fire and law enforcement agencies around Colorado and military aircraft.
The Fort Carson Fire Department and the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade were called to help firefighting efforts on Tuesday. Several helicopters, including two Chinooks and two Blackhawks, were seen making water drops in the area.
The Modular Airborne Firefighting System, called "MAFFS," based at Peterson Air Force Base will be deployed to fight this fire, according to Congressman Doug Lamborn's spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen.
A Type 3 incident command team is currently in charge of the fire, but Maketa said he expected to have a Type I team assigned to the wildfire during the day Wednesday.
The sheriff has requested an additional 7 to 8 strike teams, but it's not clear if the state will send those resources over to Black Hawk with four other wildfires burning in Colorado.
Besides the Black Forest Fire, firefighters are also battling wildfires near the Royal Gorge, at Rocky Mountain National Park and near the southern Colorado town of La Veta.