Full containment near for deadly fire

       The Waldo Canyon Fire, which last week ravaged one neighborhood and almost spread to others, was brought to its knees this week by a combined force that at its peak numbered about 1,600 firefighters from 34 different states.
       The fire's Joint Information Center (JIC), a multi-jurisdictional command headed by a national team from the U.S. Forest Service, has predicted full containment by July 8.

As media listen, Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, speaks at a press conference on the track outside Coronado High School July 3. Obscured to his right is Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security. Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach is at far right.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Evacuation orders, which at the fire's height had forced some 32,000 residents - many of them Westsiders - to seek temporary homes, were almost entirely lifted at press time. Roads that had been closed, primarily Highway 24, were reopened and bus service restored.
       Also, all fire-closed Westside parks and nearby attractions (including the Cave of the Winds, Cliff Dwellings and Cog Railway) were open again.
       With wildland fires elsewhere now seen as greater threats, Waldo crew numbers were under 1,300 July 4 with more being redeployed daily, the JIC reported.
       Remaining fire crews were mostly mopping up hot spots after gradually wrestling control of the wind-driven blaze which on June 26 roared out of the hills and into the Mountain Shadows subdivision, destroying the Flying W Ranch and 346 homes, damaging 25 other homes and killing two people (still unidentified at press time).
       It has since been learned that the fire also crackled scant hundreds of feet from homes in Cedar Heights (a Colorado Springs subdivision on the hillside near Manitou Springs and Garden of the Gods) and from the historic Glen Eyrie property off North 30th Street, just north of the Garden. And, firefighters skirmished for days before getting a handle on flames that sought to jump Highway 24 in the Ute Pass area, which could have doomed the Cascade and Crystola communities.
       On the 26th, fewer than 800 firefighters were on the scene. The containment that occurred in the succeeding days has been attributed to increased manpower along with friendlier weather (softer winds, heat in the lower instead of upper 90s and even occasional rain).
       The men on the ground have been aided by regular drops of fire retardant from helicopters and planes, including U.S. Department of Defense C-130s.
       The blaze got its name because it originated in Waldo Canyon, off Highway 24 in Ute Pass. First spotted around noon June 23, the fire has grown to more than 18,000 acres.
       Five firefighters have suffered injuries in battling the fire, but none of these was “life-threatening,” according to Tim Johnson, a JIC spokesperson.
       The cost of the fire was estimated at $13.6 million as of July 4.
       There has been an outpouring of support for people who lost their homes. On the Westside, the Goodwill retail store has offered clothes and goods and Silver Key clothing, food and durable medical goods.
       El Paso County has opened a Disaster Recovery Center to simplify efforts by fire victims to put their lives back together (See story starting on Page 4.)
       President Barack Obama (June 29) and department heads Tom Vilsack and Janet Napolitano (July 3) visited Colorado Springs to offer condolences and pledges of emergency aid.
       “A major disaster declaration for Colorado, approved by President Obama on June 29, makes federal funding available to state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency protective measures, including direct federal assistance,” a press release states.
       An investigation into the fire's cause was continuing. A recently revealed possibility is that the fire may have actually started earlier than June 23. El Paso County Public Information Officer Joe Roybal said that area agencies investigated a report of smoke “in the mountains north of Cave of the Winds” the evening of June 22. Nothing was found in the fading evening light, but “fire resources did return the morning of Saturday, June 23, 2012, to conduct follow-up,” Roybal's press release states. “They were still in the area when the calls rang into dispatch centers announcing the visible smoke and fire which is now known as the Waldo Canyon Fire.”
       People who may have information about how the fire started are asked to call 477-4205.
       The new concern for the region is flash flooding, particularly in areas where the vegetation has been burned away. In Vilsack's comments, made in a press conference outside Coronado High School, he said, “I strongly urge the purchase of flood insurance. There's a 30-day waiting period, so people should do it right away.”
       In other updates:
  • On June 30, police confirmed 22 cases of burglaries and attempted burglaries in the then-evacuation zones. One arrest has been made.
  • A herd of about 50 cattle from the Flying W Ranch survived the conflagration that destroyed the ranch. They have since been relocated to the Norris-Penrose Event Center.
  • Wanting to show appreciation, “hundreds of people are lining 31st Street every evening to cheer the firefighters,” Pleasant Valley resident Carol Corcoran reported in an e-mail to the Westside Pioneer July 4. “This is during their shift change, about 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tonight, traffic is blocked from Fontmore back to Colorado Avenue. It's great!”
  • The Friends of Red Rock Canyon group has scheduled a fire mitigation workday at the open space July 28. For more information, go to redrockcanyonopenspace.org.
  • Two local musicians (Sebrena Forrest and Janice Gould) combined on a song seeking meaning from the June 26 tragedy, titled “Ashes Falling from the Sky.” It is posted online at youtube.com/watch?v=ZWqzyj10Mks.

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