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BLACK FOREST, Co. Officials continue to express cautious optimism about their progress on the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.
After a rough start to what has been dubbed the "Battle of Black Forest," firefighters made tremendous gains over the weekend, increasing containment from 30 percent Friday afternoon to 75 percent Monday afternoon. Crews also kept to fire from growing any further over the weekend, and even downgraded it in size from 15,500 to 14,280, citing better mapping.
As of Thursday afternoon the fire is 100% contained.
The situation seemed dour over the first three days as the weather conditions continued to work against the firefighters, causing the fire to balloon in size from June 11-13. Strong winds with gusts of 30 mph or more, warm temperatures and low humidity worked together to create conditions ripe for continuing fire danger. The weather calmed down significantly after Thursday, although Incident Commander Rich Harvey said lightning Sunday night caused a few scares when it struck in the burn area three times.
June 13 in particular was a harrowing day, with the news that the Black Forest Fire had become the state's most destructive wildfire in history and the discovery of two bodies in the burn area dominating the headlines.
The news that the Black Forest Fire had destroyed more homes than the Waldo Canyon Fire was particularly jarring for residents who thought they had witnessed a once in a lifetime event when the fire roared into Mountain Shadows last summer.
Almost 350 homes were destroyed that night, making the fire the most destructive in Colorado history--until the Black Forest Fire. As of Tuesday, 509 homes have been destroyed in the fire, surpassing the Waldo fire's record. Another 28 homes were partially damaged and 3,653 are unaffected. Maketa said Wednesday he believes they have assessed 99 percent of the property affected by the fire.
The fire's origin was problematic for firefighters in a way that the Waldo Canyon Fire was not, officials said when asked in Wednesday's news conference to compare the two fires.
"The fire is challenging because it began in essentially a residential area," one official said.
While the Waldo fire took four days to reach Mountain Shadows, the Black Forest Fire claimed homes within hours due to its close proximity from the beginning. Officials explained that after the fire started, winds carried it to "higher density property."
Maketa cited the wind as the leading foe firefighters faced during the early days of firefighting as they scrambled to save as many structures as they could. Late Wednesday into early Thursday, winds drove the fire back towards homes that had previously been spared and then spread the flames into areas previously untouched.
"It's been the game changer," Maketa said June 13.
As they continue to battle the fire, officials have turned their attention to what caused the fire. The investigation took on even more urgency Thursday afternoon when officials announced the discovery of human remains at one home.
The El Paso County Sheriff's Office has identified them as Marc Allen Herklotz, 52, and his wife, Robin Lauran Herklotz, 50.
Authorities speculate that the couple had been in the middle of fleeing on the day the fire broke out when the flames likely overwhelmed them. A witness spoke with the victims twice by phone on the day of the fire, and had been assured in his first phone call around 4 p.m. that the flames were still a safe distance away.
But an hour later, the witness could hear "crackling" in the background as he spoke to the victims a final time. The victims assured him they were about to leave.
The bodies were found in the garage. The garage and car doors were open.
Maketa said Sunday that the deceased knew they were under an evacuation order, but went back in to save property.
"They waited a little too long," he said.
Because of two people have died, Maketa says the fire investigation is considered a criminal investigation until proven otherwise.
Maketa said Monday that authorities are "zeroing in" on the point of origin for the fire. ATF and state officials have been called to help.
If you have any information on what started the fire, you are asked to call 444-8393 or email your tip to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to help volunteer in any way, email email@example.com. Put in the subject line the way that you can help.
All fire victims are urged to go to the Disaster Assistance Center. There are multiple non-profit and government agencies offering help to those impacted by the fire.
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