P. SOLOMON BANDA
---- — COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Rain helped firefighters douse Colorado's most destructive wildfire in state history, while a new wind-whipped blaze in California forced evacuations and threatened homes Monday near Yosemite National Park.
Investigators believed Colorado's Black Forest Fire was human-caused, and were going through the charred remains of luxury homes destroyed and damaged in it last week. Even though the fire was mostly contained and more evacuation orders were being lifted Monday night, officials were not letting victims back into the most developed area where there was concentrated devastation from the fire because the area was being treated as a possible crime scene.
Residents have been anxious to return but investigators want to preserve evidence, and firefighters also are working to make sure the interior of the burn area is safe, by putting out hot spots and removing trees in danger of falling.
"We're not ignoring you and we're with you," El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said.
In some cases, residents who were escorted back for emergency situations have refused to leave again.
Sheriff's officials said Monday that 502 homes have been lost in the 22-square-mile fire near Colorado Springs, which is 75 percent contained. Two unidentified people who were trying to flee were found dead in the rubble.
Wildfires were also burning in other parts of Colorado as well as California, where more than 700 firefighters battled the Carstens Fire. That fire near the main route into Yosemite National Park in the Central Sierra foothills began Sunday afternoon and has burned about 1 1/2 square miles or 900 acres, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
With more than 140 engines and two helicopters on the scene, the crews have contained about 15 percent of the blaze so far.
"The strong winds and dry conditions have been major factors. The fire moved quickly," said Berlant, adding that Monday's weather forecasts estimate gusts of up to 20 miles per hour.
No structures have been burned as the exact cause of the fire has yet to be determined, Berlant said.
In New Mexico, crews have contained the majority of the 94 square miles of wildfires raging throughout the state. The largest fire, the 37-square-mile Thompson Ridge Fire, was 80 percent contained.
Near Colorado Springs, there were no lightning strikes when the fire broke out last Tuesday amid record-breaking heat so it's believed the fire must have been caused by a person or a machine. Maketa said Monday that local, state and federal investigators are "zeroing in on the point of origin" of the fire and that should help allow residents of the areas hit hardest to temporarily return home. He said crews were working to bring in some heavy equipment to help that work.
He said residents could be temporarily allowed back Tuesday or Wednesday, promising authorities would work with whatever their needs were. He said he understood that some people might want to go back for just a short time as part of their grieving process while others might want to stay for several hours and start cleaning up.
Mike Turner surveyed the rubble of his mother's home Monday but had nothing but praise for firefighters who battled the erratic blaze in tinder box conditions.
"What I've seen from firefighters so far is an organized assault on insanity," he said, echoing the gratitude shared by many residents in rural, heavily wooded Black Forest.
The fire is only a few miles away from the state's second-most destructive wildfire, the Waldo Canyon Fire, which started nearly a year ago. The cause of that fire still hasn't been determined.
The memory of that fire might have made residents especially appreciative of firefighters. Large crowds have been turning out to line the road and cheer crews as they return from the lines. Incident commander Rich Harvey said that support has helped firefighters get through methodical but not very exciting mop up work needed to get residents back to their homes.
"When it gets down to the grind, it's hard to stay motivated," he said.
In Canon City, 50 miles to the southwest, a wildfire that destroyed 48 buildings at the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park is fully contained. A lightning-sparked fire in Rocky Mountain National Park has burned about 600 acres and was 95 percent contained.
In western Colorado, a roughly 500-acre wildfire burning north of Rifle is 85 percent contained. It was started Friday by a smoldering lightning strike.