BLACK FOREST, Colo., June 14, 2013 — The dramatic pictures of flames leaping high into the air and the huge plumes of black smoke are absent from Black Forest, Colorado today. The clouds are really clouds and not billowing smoke. Still, the most damaging fire in Colorado history is only 5 percent contained and fire crews continue to work hard to limit the damage.
As of this morning, 38,000 people have impacted by the fire and the mandatory evacuations in and around the fire zone. Somewhere between 13 and 15,000 acres are in the fire zone in the heart of Black Forest.
The fire started early Tuesday afternoon and spread quickly in the tinder-dry forest. About 380 homes have been completely lost.
While the fire has been destructive, the response, according to County Sheriff Terry Maketa, has been the best he has ever seen.
Regional fire teams responded within hours. By 3:30, Larkspur, Colorado fire trucks were staging at County Line Road and Highway 83. The highway has been the western boundary of the affected area.
The response was rapid, in part because of lessons learned from the Waldo Canyon fire just west of Colorado Springs almost exactly one year ago.
On Tuesday afternoon, Congressman Doug Lamborn (CO-05) and his staff coordinated with the National Interagency Fire Center based in Boise, Idaho to secure a verbal agreement for the Modular Airborne FireFighting System, MAFFS, based at Peterson, Air Force Base to be deployed to fight the Black Forest fire. The next day the planes were engaged.
Helicopters from a Colorado Army National Guard aviation battalion stationed at Ft. Carson have also been engaged. They could be seen dipping their buckets into reservoirs and flying into the fire zone to dump the water where needed. Guard engineers bulldozed fire lines. Military firefighters from the Guard also fought the fire.
Army National Guard personnel manned checkpoints around the evacuation zones, maintaining security.
Sheriff Maketa said that 7,000 homes are being surveyed for damage; almost 2,200 are complete. The county is posting the information on their website so home owners will know the fates of their property.
El Paso and Douglas County sheriff departments are cooperating closely. At County Line Road Thursday, Douglas County sheriffs took over security duties at the request of El Paso County, who had simply run out of people to do the job. By Friday morning, the Army National Guard was manning the checkpoints.
Police and firefighters are also working closely together. Sheriff Maketa said police call firefighters when they notice hot spots and firefighters call police when they see an unsecured structure or unfamiliar person. There have been no reports of looting.
Firefighters are using a two-pronged strategy. One is to dig fire lines and try to prevent the fire from expanding. The other is to try to work to save structures inside the fire zone.
Homes in Black Forest are typically built on five to twenty acres. People who live in the Forest love the area. There is a community-run slash program that collects tons of slash every summer and turn it into mulch. The Forest is healthier than the National Forest, but the dryness of the spring worked against the efforts of man.
State Sen. Kent Lambert, who rode through some of the devastated area, said that many structures seem to have been saved due to owners’ fire mitigation efforts.
The fire is more complex than the Waldo Canyon fire. That fire was a wall of flame. The Black Forest fire spread rapidly in multiple directions, fanned by winds 20 mph or greater. The winds changed direction several times. The fire spread on the ground and also by embers amongst the treetops. The fire has engulfed most of the crescent-shaped treed area that is central to Black Forest but has generally been stopped at the grassy fringes.
Local and state government agencies, aided in part by federal resources, have proved very capable in working together and performing the basic safety and security functions of government. Residents of Black Forest could not wish for better help.
Al Maurer is a long-time resident of Black Forest. His family has been evacuated but their home seems safe for now.
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