Some Colorado Wildfire Evacuees Briefly Allowed Back Into Homes

The Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., has pushed about 4,500 evacuees out of their homes. Police are escorting some of them back in to pick up critical medications or rescue pets.

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In Colorado, the Black Forest fire is the most destructive in state history. The blaze has killed two people and burned down nearly 500 homes. About 4,500 people remained out of their homes near Colorado Springs. Now, police are escorting some homeowners back to their neighborhoods to rescue pets or gather critical medications. Colorado Public Radio's Eric Whitney rode along with one resident.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: After more than an hour's wait, a sheriff's deputy is finally available to escort Bill Holcombe into his house inside the burned zone perimeter.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What are you going to get?

BILL HOLCOMBE: I'm going to get my meds.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. Here's the thing. There's firefighters kind of walking in and out. When we're driving up the road, pay attention.

WHITNEY: On the drive in, Holcombe says he and his family only had about 15 minutes to pack up and leave.

HOLCOMBE: We were monitoring it on TV, and we were in pretty good shape, and then, man, it switched directions and it just ate the forest up.

WHITNEY: The day after he evacuated, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa issued the first list of homes destroyed by the fire. Holcombe's house was on that list. Sixteen hours later, there was a new list, and it said his house was OK.

HOLCOMBE: The first list, I was destroyed. The second list, I was back - off the list. The third time Mr. Maketa came on, he said I was partially damaged, so I don't really know. But if it is still standing, I'll know it here in about five minutes.

WHITNEY: So what was that like to see your house on the destroyed list and then see it off?

HOLCOMBE: You know what? I have never been on an emotional roller-coaster ride like that. You know, I just haven't.

WHITNEY: The forest we're passing through still has patches of untouched green trees. Then there will be several acres of blackened earth, the vacant foundation where a house once stood. Parked in the driveway, skeletons of cars with the tires melted off.

HOLCOMBE: Wow, look at that destruction.

WHITNEY: Pretty soon, we're turning onto the dirt road where Holcombe's one-story, gray-stuccoed house is still standing.

HOLCOMBE: There it is, mine.

WHITNEY: That's your house?

HOLCOMBE: Yep.

WHITNEY: That's got to feel pretty good.

HOLCOMBE: It does.

WHITNEY: Holcombe is happy but distracted. He's trying to take stock of his neighbors' properties. They've been told their houses were lost, but don't know any other details.

HOLCOMBE: Yeah, their shed's gone. Wow, the barn's gone.

WHITNEY: All around Holcombe's house: piles of rubble with chimneys sticking up here and there. Tree stumps are still smoldering. The flames pushed up to the back of his house, licked it, but left it standing. He darts inside and comes back out with a shoebox full of pillboxes. He pauses to take a look around, and then the deputy says it's time to go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, guys. You ready?

HOLCOMBE: Yes, sir. Thank you so much for letting me in and letting me get this.

WHITNEY: So how are you feeling right now?

HOLCOMBE: I have mixed emotions. You know, I'm glad my house is saved. I mean, to be honest, I'm surprised that it's in such good shape considering what happened to the neighborhood. My neighbors, it breaks my heart for them.

WHITNEY: On the drive back out, Holcombe says he's glad that he took fire mitigation measures over the years, clearing dead tree limbs and raking pine needles away from his house.

HOLCOMBE: The thing is, my neighbors across the street, the one you saw, they're very, very good at doing it also. And their house, it didn't help. So who knows? It's luck of the draw, God's whimsical humor, whatever you want to call it. Karma? I don't know. I don't know.

WHITNEY: Bill Holcombe's house remains in the fire's mandatory evacuation area, as do thousands of others. And for about 500 homeowners, there will be no house to return to. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in El Paso County, Colorado.

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