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Some evacuations lifted in destructive Colorado fire

Posted: June 15, 2013 at 10:40 a.m.

Jasen Dill, left, and Judy Pohlod discuss returning to their homes, which made it through the Black Forest fire safely, as a storm passes overhead at the corner of Hodgen Road and Highway 83 Friday, June 14, 2013 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Firefighters advanced against a monstrous wildfire outside of Colorado Springs, expanding containment lines and lifting evacuation orders for thousands of anxious residents in the most destructive blaze in state history, which has destroyed nearly 500 homes and killed two people.

"I think if you look at it as a fight, we got our tails kicked for a couple of days," El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said Friday afternoon. He called Thursday a "draw," then gave what's been one of the most optimistic updates since the wildfire exploded this week. "I think today we delivered some blows, and we've got some good news to give out."

Aided by a surprise rain shower and slower fire movement, crews increased containment to 30 percent, up from the 5 percent the previous day. That meant evacuation orders could be lifted for neighborhoods east, north, and west of the fire — areas where as many as 5,000 people are estimated to live, Maketa said.

The fire began Tuesday during record-setting heat and tinder-dry conditions. Officials have warned it still could flare up again if the weather shifts. So far, 473 homes have been destroyed.

Crews say they were better prepared to take on the flames because of lessons learned fighting last year's Waldo Canyon Fire, a similarly devastating blaze that devoured hundreds of homes and killed two people only a few miles away.

When the Black Forest, a thickly wooded rural region north of Colorado Springs, began to burn, authorities swiftly evacuated tens of thousands of people from an area larger than the Denver metropolitan area.

They immediately began hand-counting destroyed houses to get information out to nervous homeowners. And they rushed federal troops and aircraft into action, cutting the red tape that had grounded those resources a year ago as smoke clouds billowed over Colorado.

Within an hour, El Paso County had its emergency operations center up and running and summoned aircraft from nearby Peterson Air Force base. Rep. Doug Lamborn called the federal center in Idaho that coordinates western firefighting to speed up the process of clearing the planes. Gov. John Hickenlooper mobilized the Colorado National Guard, and troops began to help secure the rapidly growing evacuation zone.

The cause of the blaze is under investigation, but Maketa said authorities believe it was human-caused.

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