COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Black Forest wildfire, still raging out of control, became deadly with the grim discovery Thursday of two people killed while apparently trying to flee their home.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said the victims were found about 2 p.m. in their garage with the car doors open, probably trying to load belongings when the fire engulfed them. They are thought to have died sometime after 5 p.m. Tuesday as their neighborhood in Black Forest was being evacuated.
Maketa said the two victims had been reported missing after they could no longer be reached by phone. He said someone reported calling them about 4:20 p.m. and they said they could see an orange glow to the west and they were packing.
Forty minutes later they told the same caller they were about to leave. The caller later told authorities the sound of popping and cracking could be heard in the background.
The identities of the victims have not yet been released. “We were hoping to get through day to day without news like this,” said a shaken Maketa at an afternoon news conference.
Although the cause of the massive, wind-whipped fire — now the most destructive in Colorado history — is not known, Maketa said the discovery of the bodies means the inquiry is “now a criminal investigation.”
As the fire burned into its third day, it had devoured 15,700 acres — 24.5 square miles — and claimed 360 homes. Firefighters reported slight progress in some areas, and containment is now thought to be 5%.
But strong winds and hot, dry weather pushed the fire forward in other areas, and throughout the day the evacuation areas continued to expand, moving into two adjoining counties. By Thursday afternoon, about 39,000 people were under evacuation orders, including 1,000 within the Colorado Springs city limits. Previously, the evacuations had been limited to outlying areas.
Traffic throughout the city slowed to single-digit speeds as roads and highways became clogged with evacuees.
The number of houses destroyed had nearly quadrupled by Thursday from 92 the day before, but remained at 360 by the afternoon, offering another glimmer of hope. “I’m very hopeful we didn’t lose any homes today,” Maketa said.
The Black Forest fire, which was first reported about 1 p.m. Tuesday, moved into the record books early Thursday. Last year’s Waldo Canyon fire — almost exactly a year ago and 10 miles to the west — had been the most destructive fire in state history, with 346 homes lost. The number of people evacuated in that fire, which roared into a densely populated subdivision and also killed two, was 32,000.
“I was here a year ago. This is another sad day in the Pikes Peak region,” said Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach at Thursday’s briefing.
Across the northern edges of the city, the fire continued to be the center of conversation. From convenience stores to fast food restaurants, the question was always the same: “Are you evacuated?” Then the inevitable: “Is your house OK?”
Many still do not know. Some watched the plume rising on the horizon and wondered what news the next day would bring.
At a suburban Wal-Mart parking lot, a makeshift RV park of evacuees had sprung up, with dozens of campers and recreational vehicles claiming squatting rights. “It’s becoming a real community,” said Laurianne Spencer, who fled her home in Black Forest on Tuesday and went back later to retrieve their trailer to live in.
She and her husband have been staying in the trailer along with their two daughters, ages 7 and 13, one cat and two dogs — including a 145-pound Anatolian shepherd.
They shower at a nearby health club and share the store bathroom with shoppers and other evacuees. She says the surrounding stores have been welcoming. On Thursday afternoon, two girls wheeling an orange Home Depot shopping cart made the rounds of trailers, offering frozen treats. Spencer said Wal-Mart gave her girls passes to the new Superman movie, “Man of Steel.”
Even though they are trying to treat the evacuation as an adventure to help ease their daughters’ fears, Spencer can’t help but worry about their well-being once they finally return to their neighborhood.
“All of our friends’ — all of their friends’ homes…" She stopped and glanced at her girls, then silently mouthed the word, “Gone.”
For now, she knows she is one of the lucky ones. She stays in contact with a neighbor who refused to evacuate who gives her updates on what has survived and what hasn’t.
“We still have a house,” she said. And then she exhaled.