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6:16 am
Fri June 14, 2013

First Lives Lost In Colorado Wildfire

Originally published on Fri June 14, 2013 6:49 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Black Forest Fire outside Colorado Springs has now left two people dead. That fire has forced nearly 40,000 people to evacuate, and it's consumed over 300 homes since it was first ignited Monday afternoon. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports it's now the most destructive natural disaster in Colorado history.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The shifting winds and a fourth straight day of searing heat caused the Black Forest Fire to send up another ominous plume of smoke yesterday afternoon, just as El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa stepped to a bank of TV cameras. He had to deliver the sad news that two bodies had been found at a home in the wooded neighborhoods behind him.

Authorities were alerted to the victims by a witness who was on the phone with them. Maketa was still trying to piece the grim story together.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SHERIFF TERRY MAKETA: And they said that they were - they could see a glow to the west. They were packing their personal belongings, trying to get out. At 5 o'clock, there was another phone conversation. The person that they were speaking with said he could hear popping and cracking in the background, and they advised they are leaving right now.

SIEGLER: But they didn't get out in time, and the sheriff went on to say it was fortunate that there haven't been anymore known casualties. Indeed, firefighters have been facing dangerous conditions here. The fire's behavior has been erratic and unpredictable. The winds have sent embers flying, which have started new fires in the scenic Black Forest where dense stands of Ponderosa pine trees extend off the Rocky Mountains and onto the prairie just north of Colorado Springs.

After the press conference, Sheriff Maketa described the devastation.

MAKETA: You don't see a half-burned home, so I think that's an indication of the temperature, the building material. But even newer homes with stucco siding are burned completely to the ground, and that was pretty shocking and very telling early on.

SIEGLER: The sky is buzzing with water-dropping choppers, and planes dispatched from the nearby Air Force Academy was an eerily familiar scene. It was almost one year ago that the massive Waldo Canyon fire destroyed almost 350 homes just to the southwest of here. Police, once again, guarded emptied-out subdivisions, restaurants and businesses were deserted and the freeways were clogged with people trying to evacuate to shelters.

JAMIE HARRIS: It is very stressful.

SIEGLER: At one shelter run by the Red Cross in the town of Monument, Jamie Harris was folding down the backseats of her car where she planned to sleep with her dog for a second night. Harris just moved to Colorado from Texas five days ago.

HARRIS: Luckily, since I haven't had a chance to unpack my house, I was able to just grab my safe that had all my important documents with me, anyway, from moving.

SIEGLER: Down the road at the Marriot, the parking lot was also full of cars stuffed with the boxes and suitcases of evacuees. Christine Peebles says she's had to haul her family's horses to safe places twice as the fire shifted directions over the past two days. She doesn't know whether her home is still standing.

CHRISTINE PEEBLES: I changed my insurance a few months ago, and I was really grateful that I did that. We have excellent insurance. They've been in touch with us, and it's - you know, we'll rebuild if we have to. So everyone's safe and okay. That's what matters.

RICH HARVEY: I'm Kentucky windaging with my finger here, exactly where it's at.

SIEGLER: Back at the media staging area, Rich Harvey was fielding questions from more anxious evacuees. Harvey is the incident commander for the federal team that took over the fire yesterday. He's the same man who was in charge of last year's Waldo Canyon fire. Harvey is reluctant to compare the two, except to say the logistical challenges have been similar.

HARVEY: It's not really steep, steep, like in mountains, but it's rugged and broken. There's a lot of homes widely scattered through this heavy fuel type, and access, trying to get in there and get the right things going - been a challenge.

SIEGLER: And Harvey said he's worried, because there's a lot more fuel to burn. Like much of Colorado's heavily populated Front Range, natural wild fires have long been suppressed here, building up those fuels he mentioned. All those homes add even more fuel. The forecast today calls for more of the same, and authorities are concerned the destruction could get even worse. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Colorado Springs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.