Black Forest Fire Rages On Near Colorado Springs

The Black Forest Fire burning near Colorado Springs is the most destructive wildfire in the state's history.

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The massive wildfire in Colorado, just north of Colorado Springs, has claimed the lives of two people; and the number of homes destroyed has reached 400. The Black Forest fire is burning through dense stands of ponderosa pine. It's consumed some 24 square miles, and it's still threatening parts of the city, though some people who had been evacuated are being allowed to return to their homes. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on the efforts to fight the blaze.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Authorities are calling their inquiry into the deaths of the two victims a criminal investigation. But at a news conference today, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa was quick to clarify, that's strictly procedural. And he says it's not tied to any tip authorities may have gotten about how the Black Forest fire started.

SHERIFF TERRY MAKETA: And we investigate it and treat it as though it's a crime until we prove otherwise. It does not imply anything; it's common terminology that we use.

SIEGLER: But Maketa and other officials say they've all but ruled out something natural like a lightning strike as the cause for what's now the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. While the sheriff's office continues its investigation today, hundreds of firefighters are working to keep the blaze from moving into the northern reaches of Colorado Springs itself. Sheriff Maketa was the most upbeat he's been since the fire ignited Monday.

MAKETA: So I think the firefighters, the strategies employed have done real well, and we did not lose large chunks of land last night.

SIEGLER: But crews are still assessing damage in the footprint of the burned area that includes some 7,000 homes. This kind of fast-moving, intensely burning wildfire that's hugely expensive to fight, is something that Coloradans have been getting accustomed to lately. A history of stamping out natural wildfires has created huge amounts of fuel in places like the Black Forest. Couple that with severe drought and rising temperatures, and you get the kind of conditions fire managers across the west are worried about right now.

That's why Colorado's governor has requested National Guard troops from surrounding states. State and federal resources are pouring in here by the minute. Rich Harvey leads the federal team that's taken command of the fire.

RICH HARVEY: The corner's a long way away, but we are certainly moving towards turning the corner.

SIEGLER: Harvey says heavy air tankers and choppers took advantage of cloud cover and slightly higher humidity this morning before the temperature heated back up. And word that fire crews were making some progress was greeted by applause from a crowd of evacuees who turned out at the media update, looking for information about their homes.

DENNIS JOHNSON: You're delivering, and so is the fire crew and your management. And God bless you. Thank you.

SIEGLER: Dennis Johnson is one of the displaced who came by to express his gratitude to the sheriff and the firefighters. He says he's touched by the response of the entire community.

JOHNSON: You know, without getting emotional, I'm welling up. You just don't see that much in our culture anymore. All this me-itis is a bunch of garbage. If you have an opportunity to see the we-itis, you regain your composure of, this is the greatest country that ever was on the face of the Earth.

SIEGLER: Some optimism even though Johnson fears the worst about his home and property.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Colorado Springs.

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