Bad conditions for firefighters as Colorado residents visit charred homes

Bad conditions for firefighters as Colorado residents visit charred homes
Photo by Josh Rubin/CNN.

POSTED: Sunday, July 1, 2012 - 4:00pm

UPDATED: Sunday, July 1, 2012 - 4:04pm

Some residents displaced by a fast-moving wildfire outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, will get their first look Sunday at what remains of their homes.

Highway 24, which cuts through the area, will be open to residents for several hours, officials announced.

"We've got families who are going to be grieving over losing their homes," said Sallie Clark, El Paso County commissioner.

A bunch of organizations have come together to "help them rebuild their lives," including assembling records, she said.

Federal officials are helping as firefighters battle what state officials have called the worst fire in Colorado history. The cause remains unknown.

Preliminary estimates put the devastation at nearly 350 homes destroyed and more than two dozen damaged.

Two people were killed and two were wounded in the fire, authorities said.

By early Sunday morning, firefighters contained 45% of the Waldo Canyon fire, which has scorched more than 17,600 acres -- close to 27 square miles -- since it began June 23.

Firefighters are aided by helicopters, air tankers and military planes dropping water and retardant.

The area was under a Red Flag Warning on Sunday, according to the National Weather Service, which means critical fire conditions. Winds were expected to increase, but firefighters were in position to work to stop it from spreading, officials said.

Officials told CNN the conditions were expected to be the worst since Tuesday, when the fire exploded, spreading quickly.

The perimeter has "been staying pretty stable," said Rich Harvey, incident commander for the fire. But the fire was continuing to move in some places along the inside, he said.

Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey said 24 burglaries have been confirmed in the area affected by the fire.

Some involved cars.

Linda Burton, who had evacuated her suburban home because of the fire, returned to find it burglarized.

"It's almost as bad as the house being burned down because you feel violated that there are people out there that prey upon victims that are already suffering," Burton told CNN affiliate KKTV on Saturday. "I feel like I have been hit by a train."

The Colorado Springs Fire Department issued a long series of tweets on Sunday, calling on those who are allowed to visit their homes to dress properly and bring needed supplies -- including possibly dust masks -- when they go to their homes. It warned people to watch out for charred trees, ash pits, and unstable power poles, and to leave immediately if they smell gas.

The fire has threatened thousands of homes and scores of businesses.

It forced the evacuation of more than 36,000 people, most on Tuesday when strong winds whipped the blaze into a firestorm that spewed ash and smoke.

Many have since been allowed to return. Authorities are no longer keeping track of how many people are still evacuated, said Anne Rys-Sikora, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Authorities put the cost of fighting the fire at $8.8 million by Saturday night. The U.S. Forest Service has warned it could be mid-July before the Waldo Canyon Fire is fully under control.

The wildfire is one of 11 active fires in Colorado. Other Western states -- including Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah -- also are battling wildfires, which is straining firefighting resources.

President Barack Obama declared Colorado a disaster area to allow federal dollars to help fight the Waldo Canyon Fire as well the High Park Fire, which burned 87,284 acres and destroyed nearly 260 homes in northern Colorado since it began on June 9.

As of Saturday night, that fire was 100% contained and all evacuation orders were lifted. Firefighters will continue mopping up hotspots along the perimeter of the fire, which has cost more than $38 million to date.

-- CNN's Josh Levs, Martin Savidge, Rob Marciano, Chelsea Carter and Melissa Gray contributed to this report.

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