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Colorado fires: Worst is over, officials say; evacuees grow anxious

Supporters greet fire crews as they return from their shifts from fighting the Black Forest wildfire outside a fire camp at Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Sunday.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. -- Fire officials expressed confidence Monday that the worst of the deadly Black Forest fire is over, but anxiety if rising among thousands of evacuees who have not yet been able to see what is left of their homes.

“It is stressful to not really know what it is like,” said Tim MacDonald on Monday, although he does not blame authorities for their caution in letting residents return.

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His home was confirmed as a total loss by authorities and photos, but he says he needs to see it to make it real. He was at work in Colorado Springs last Tuesday afternoon when his wife sent him a picture on his phone of a wall of black smoke bearing down on their house. She had 10 minutes to flee, loading their 13-year-old son, two dogs, a computer, an iPad and a strong box of important papers into their car.

PHOTOS: The Black Forest fire

Everything else was left behind, including their cat, which she could not find and is still missing.

The fire ignited June 11 around 1:30 p.m. in heavily wooded clusters of large homes about 13 miles northeast of Colorado Springs. The Black Forest area draws its name from the dense ponderosa pines, which became a tinderbox amid a dangerous combination of record heat, low humidity and high winds, which pushed the fire to devour most everything in its path.

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Fire officials now say the fire is 75% contained with full containment expected later this week.

But the toll of the most destructive fire in state history is grim: two people dead, 485 homes destroyed, 17 partly damaged and more than 14,000 acres burned. The victims, discovered Thursday in their garage with car doors open are believed to have been killed trying to flee. Their names have not been released.

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The fire is being treated as a homicide investigation because of those deaths, said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa. He told The Times on Friday he was confident there were no others missing in the fire.

While the cause of the fire remains unknown, authorities said they do not believe it was touched off by lightning or a rock slide and believe someone started it accidentally or it was arson. Maketa said last week investigators have narrowed the area where the fire began, but would not release any further details.

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About 4,600 people remain under mandatory evacuation, with an additional nearly 16,000 still considered in voluntary evacuation, said Jennifer Brown, a spokeswoman for El Paso County, told The Times on Monday. At the fire’s height late last week, nearly 40,000 people were under evacuation—the size of a small city.

Maketa said at a morning press conference that over the next few days more and more people will be allowed to return, even if for only a few hours.

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“We have a plan, we’re not ignoring you,” he said, addressing residents. He said he understood how hard it would be for many. “For a lot of you, it’s not going home, it’s going to rubble.”

For now, Brown said, those in the mandatory evacuation areas are allowed in only to retrieve pets or medication. They need to show officers proof of residence and enter their neighborhoods with escorts.

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Authorities acknowledged that emotions are running high as some people who are allowed back in do not want to leave. But patience is needed as firefighters continue to work in the burn areas, authorities said.

“People want to get back into their homes or see what is left and we want to let them,” Brown said on Monday, “but we really need to be careful. We want to make sure they are safe.”

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There are still active hot spots in Black Forest as well as danger from damaged trees that could fall and downed power lines. Maketa said that because the area is being treated as a potential crime scene it is important to preserve any evidence.

The randomness of what survived and what didn’t astounds MacDonald. A firefighter showed him pictures of their property over the weekend, which helped prepare his family for what awaits them:

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A three-foot bronze statue of a hockey player made it, the barn did not. Lying in the charred dirt is the plaque that once hung by their front door: “Mi casa Su Casa.”

But the house, their casa, is gone.

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