By P. SOLOMON BANDA
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A Colorado sheriff said firefighters “are getting the upper hand” on the most destructive wildfire in state history Saturday, an announcement that came as authorities gained a clearer picture of the grim landscape the blaze has left behind.
No additional homes were destroyed as fire crews expanded containment lines, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said. Also, there were no new reports of injury or death, he said.
The fire that exploded Tuesday outside of Colorado Springs, amid record-setting heat and tinder-dry conditions, has destroyed nearly 500 homes and killed two people, whose bodies were found inside their garage Thursday, their car doors open as though they had been about to flee.
On Saturday, worried residents waited for permission to return to their neighborhoods to see whether their homes were still standing.
Maketa said the fire’s destruction has made it difficult for his deputies to assess damage.
Deputies have said “it looks like a nuclear bomb went off in some of those areas, and you can’t even recognize whether it was a house or some other kind of structure,” Maketa said. “That is the level of incineration and destruction that took place in some areas.”
Containment is at 45 percent, an increase from 30 percent on Friday. It’s unknown what sparked the blaze, but investigators believe it was human-caused. So far, it’s cost more than $3.5 million to fight.
Most mandatory evacuation orders have been lifted, as the fire zone remained at 25 square miles.
Some residents have already gotten to see the damage for themselves.
Jack and Judy Roe were able to tour their neighborhood Friday, and saw to their relief that their house had been spared. Several other homes on their block, however, where destroyed.
“Our hearts were breaking for our neighbors,” Judy Roe said.
Describing the scene, she said she saw charred piles of what remained of homes, with bricks the only distinguishable feature.
“But other than that, everything is black. The ground, everything is just black,” she said.
Some residents were forced to evacuate so quickly they didn’t have time to pack an extra change of clothes.
“This is my wardrobe,” said Bob Metzger, signaling to his jeans and polo shirt. Metzger and her wife Barbara were among those who lost their house.
The site of the wildfire is only a few miles away from the state’s second most destructive wildfire, the Waldo Canyon Fire, which burned last summer.
The lessons from that fire spurred a quicker response, officials said. When the latest wildfire began in Black Forest, a thickly wooded rural region north of Colorado Springs, authorities swiftly evacuated tens of thousands of people from an area larger than the Denver metropolitan area.
White House officials said Saturday that President Barack Obama called Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday to get an update on conditions and reinforce his commitment to help. The president also expressed his concern for the devastation and gave his condolences to families who have lost relatives.
Elsewhere in Colorado, fire crews worked to contain other smaller wildfires. In Canon City, 50 miles southwest of Black Forest, the Royal Gorge Fire burned 5 square miles and was 65 percent contained. A lightning-sparked fire in Rocky Mountain National Park had burned nearly 500 acres and was 30 percent contained.