Friday, January 19, 2018

'Unreal': Residents tour Colo. blaze devastation


Melted bowling balls in the front yard were among the strange sights that met C.J. Moore upon her return Sunday to her two-story home, now reduced to ashes by the worst wildfire in Colorado history.

"You wouldn't think bowling balls would melt," she told the Associated Press by phone from the scene in her Mountain Shadows neighborhood, where she was among residents who were allowed temporary visits to areas most affected by the fire.

More than a week after it sparked on June 23, the Waldo Canyon fire was still being attacked by about 1,500 personnel. But crews working grueling shifts through the hot weekend made progress against the 26-square-mile fire, and authorities said they were confident they finally had built good fire lines in many areas to stop the spread of the flames.

So far, the blaze, now 45 percent contained, has damaged or destroyed nearly 350 homes.

It was just one of several still burning in the West, where parched conditions and searing heat contributed to the woes facing crews on hundreds of square miles across Utah, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

In the past two years, record-breaking wildfires have burned — New Mexico experienced its worst-ever wildfire, Arizona suffered its largest burn, and Texas last year fought the most fires in recorded history. From Mississippi to the Ohio Valley, temperatures are hitting record highs and the land is thirsty.

Scientists and federal officials blame climate change, saying it will probably contribute to bigger and more frequent wildfires for years to come.

"The climate is changing, and these fires are a very strong indicator of that," said U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Harris Sherman, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service.

In Colorado Springs, a line of cars a mile long queued up Sunday at a middle school checkpoint, where police checked the identification of returning residents and handed them water bottles.

While searching for her great-grandmother's cast-iron skillets, Moore marveled at the juxtaposition of what burned and what hadn't. The bowling balls had been garden decorations.

"To find my mail in my mailbox, unscathed, it's just unreal. Unreal," she said. "Bird baths are fine. Some of the foliage is fine."

Three neighbors' homes were unscathed. Only concrete remained of other homes, including hers. Cars were burned to nothing but charred metal.

"Good Lord! I've never seen anything like this. And thank God there was nobody there. Thank God there were no people here. There would have been no hope," Moore said.

Not far away, Bill Simmons and his wife, Debbie Byes, returned to their tri-level, passive-solar stucco home and found no damage — just some ashes in the driveway.

"The water and electric's back on. You know, we're good to go. We're feeling pretty happy about it at the moment," Simmons said by phone. "We're feeling pretty sad for our neighbors and pretty lucky for ourselves. It's been a real sobering experience."

Authorities said they would lift more evacuation orders Sunday night, bringing the total number of people who remain blocked from their homes down to 3,000 from more than 30,000 at the peak of the fire.

Rich Harvey, incident commander for Waldo Canyon, said crews continue to make progress.

"We're cautiously optimistic," he said Sunday morning. "We still remain focused on things that could go wrong."

Authorities are trying to determine the cause of the fire, which so far has cost $8.8 million to battle. Dangerous conditions had kept them from beginning their inquiry, but investigators were able to start their work Saturday.

More than 150 National Guard soldiers and airmen helped Colorado Springs police staff roadblocks and patrol streets.

A "bear invasion" confronted a few mountain enclaves west of Colorado Springs. The scent of trash had enticed black bears pushed out of their usual forest habitat by fire.

People who left in a hurry didn't take typical precautions to secure household trash against wildlife, said El Paso County Sheriff's Lt. Jeff Kramer.

"So that's become an attraction for the bears," Kramer said.

State game officials were trying to shoo the bears out, he said, and trash bins were stationed to help volunteers and returning homeowners throw things out.

Meanwhile, the last evacuees from the High Park Fire in northern Colorado have been allowed to return home as crews fully contained the blaze. The 136-square-mile fire killed one resident and destroyed 259 houses, a state record until the fire near Colorado Springs.

Among the fires elsewhere:

Utah: Fire commanders say Utah's largest wildfire has consumed more than 150 square miles and shows no sign of burning itself out. Hundreds of firefighters are trying to hold the Clay Springs fire from advancing on the ranching towns of Scipio and Mills on the edge of Utah's west desert. The fire has destroyed one summer home and threatens 75 others. The fire was 48 percent contained.

Montana: Crews in eastern Montana strengthened fire lines overnight on a 246-square-mile complex of blazes about 10 miles west of Lame Deer. About 500 firefighters are at the lightning-caused fires that have destroyed more than 30 structures.

Wyoming: A wind-driven wildfire in a sparsely populated area of southeastern Wyoming was burning across more than 100 square miles.

Idaho: Firefighters in eastern Idaho had the 1,038-acre Charlotte fire 80 percent contained but remained cautious with a forecast of high winds and hot temperatures that could put hundreds of homes at risk.

Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

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