A wildfire raging uncontrolled on the outskirts of Colorado's second-largest city has destroyed 360 homes near Colorado Springs, forcing the evacuation of 38,000 people, and one person was reported missing, authorities said on Thursday.
The so-called Black Forest Fire, whipped by strong winds into wooded subdivisions north of the city, overnight became the most destructive in state history and on Thursday morning was threatening more homes just outside the city, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa told a news conference.
"We're not confident that if the winds changed and pushed the fire to any one of our boundaries that it could be held," Maketa said, adding that firefighters were working to save homes on the west and northwest flanks of the blaze.
In Colorado Springs, where another monster blaze destroyed nearly 350 homes in the city and surrounding areas last year, thick pillars of smoke could be seen rising from the burn areas and the smell of burning wood and foliage lingered in the air
No solid containment lines have been established around the fire, which along with two other major blazes in the parched state have underscored concerns that persistent drought could intensify this year's fire season in the western United States.
A number of the properties destroyed in the wildfire were upscale homes on large lots nestled in heavily wooded areas and the blaze has forced horse owners in the area to flee with their animals in tow.
"It's one thing to lose your home, it's another to lose your entire community," Janette Coyne, 37, who saw her house burning on television after evacuating, told reporters on Thursday with tears in her eyes.
ONE PERSON MISSING
So far, flames from the Black Forest Fire have not damaged properties within the city limits of Colorado Springs itself.
Nevertheless, Maketa said the fire had now destroyed more homes than last summer's Waldo Canyon Fire, which gutted nearly 350 homes on the western edge of Colorado Springs and was then considered the most destructive blaze in state history. That fire also killed an elderly couple and forced 35,000 people from their homes.
The Black Forest Fire, named for the community northeast of the city where it began on Tuesday, has partially damaged another 14 houses in addition to the 360 that were destroyed, Maketa said. The status of an additional 79 locations could not be verified, he said.
"If the winds kick up like they did yesterday, that's my greatest concern," Maketa said. "We have a large area when you're thinking of 15,000 acres where you can drive through one hour and things look pretty well calmed down, like it's smoldering. Then we get a gust of wind and the next thing you know you have a raging flame and we're seeing that all over."
One person was unaccounted for, but there have been no reported injuries or fatalities in the blaze, which covers about 15,000 acres, Maketa said.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed executive orders on Wednesday declaring "disaster emergencies" that set aside more than $10 million for costs related to the Black Forest Fire and two other blazes in the state.
About 50 miles to the southwest of Black Forest, the Royal Gorge Fire, which also broke out on Tuesday, has burned about 3,100 acres, according to tracking site InciWeb.org. The Big Meadows Fire north of Denver in Rocky Mountain National Park has charred 600 acres, the site said.