'Great Day' As Evacuations Lifted, Fight Continues Against Deadly Colorado Fire
PHOTO: The Waldo Canyon fire spreads through a neighborhood in the hills above Colorado Springs. (Courtesy Denver Post / June 26, 2012)
Until Sunday, that is.
"We've had a great day," city official Steve Cox said in an afternoon press conference. "We're going to open up many areas back to the citizens."
Fire officials still report that the blaze, which so far burned over 17,600 acres -- close to 27 square miles -- was still 45% contained on Sunday. Even so, the actions promised and the tone of officials by afternoon indicated that authorities felt they were finally getting the upper hand on what has been a deadly, dangerous fire.
That includes the decision to allow thousands of people who had been ordered to evacuate back into their homes, beginning at 8 p.m. MT (10 p.m. ET) Sunday.
Some 3,000 still can't get back in, though Colorado Springs emergency management director Brett Waters noted that figure is 10% of the tally at the fire's peak.
"We'd ask that (residents return) in an orderly fashion," Cox said. "Our strategy will be that we continue to shrink that focus area down and down, and get people back in their homes as soon as we can."
Jerry Forte, the CEO of Colorado Springs Utilities, seconded the city official's comment in calling Sunday "a good day -- and it's the start of some more good days, we hope."
All electricity has been restored in the areas where evacuees will be allowed back in, Forte said. Dozens of technicians will hit those areas Monday, to "relight pilot lights, turn on gas and make sure everything is safe within your homes," according to the utility executive.
Yet the signs of progress don't change the utter devastation experienced by scores of families, who saw their lives turned upside down by the blaze.
Some returned Sunday, temporarily, to neighborhoods charred in recent days.
Among them was Susan Solich, who is caring for her four young grandsons, whose parents both died in the past year. She drove onto the street where she'd lived for 18 years to find some trees and homes still standing -- but not hers.
"I've seen pictures, but it didn't really impact me the way it did, turning into my driveway," Solich told CNN on Sunday afternoon. "My home was gone, it was imploded into the ground."
Sallie Clark, El Paso County commissioner, said several organizations have come together to help those affected rebuild their lives, including assembling records.
As for Solich, she said her family won't leave Colorado but they're not necessarily putting down roots again in Colorado Springs, either. Their focus for now is taking care of the children and making it through each day, as best they can.
"It won't be quite the same. It's kind of like the twilight zone," she said. "So many of our friends are gone, and they won't be back."
Authorities still haven't determined what caused the fire, which state officials have called the worst in Colorado history.
Firefighters are being aided by helicopters, air tankers and military planes dropping water and retardant.
The area is under a Red Flag Warning through 11 p.m. Sunday, according to the National Weather Service, which means critical fire conditions.
The positive news announced Sunday was a sharp turn from what officials told CNN hours earlier, indicating that conditions could be the worst since Tuesday, when the fire exploded and began 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."
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.