Frustration Boiling Over For Some Colo. Fire Evacuees

June 17, 2013
On the six day of evacuations in Colorado Springs, many evacuees are voicing frustrations over the length they've been out of their homes.

June 16--After five days of hunkering down at home in defiance of evacuation orders, Picker Munson was running out of food and supplies.

He was also running out of patience.

So he left his home on Burgess Road, the southern border of the area evacuated for the Black Forest fire, to attend a news conference and plead with officials to narrow the mandatory evacuation zone, even though leaving meant he would not be allowed to return.

"I understand they've got to keep people safe and all that stuff, but I don't understand why they punish us for protecting our properties," said Munson, who said he ignored the evacuation order to battle any flames that came near the house. Friends had been hiking in with food for him to avoid the checkpoints.

On the sixth day of the fire, many evacuees voiced similar frustration as firefighters continued to get the upper hand on the blaze.

The fire broke out Tuesday, killing two people, scorching 14,198 acres acres and destroying 485 homes, the most destructive blaze in state history. It is believed to have been human-caused. The victims' names have not been released.

Sunday, containment was pushed from Saturday's 45 percent to 65 percent. The military helicopters working the fire were sent home, no longer needed after dropping 889,135 gallons of water on the fire in 1,297 bucket loads. Much of the work by the 1,175 firefighters now involves digging containment lines on the north side and putting out hot spots.

"There's not a lot of active flames. There's not a lot of open flames," incident commander Rich Harvey said at a noon news conference.

But there was no relief in sight for the more than 30,000 people who remained evacuated, as El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa announced it is too dangerous to narrow the evacuation area.

"I don't want to get the cart ahead of the horse. I don't want to create a false belief that tomorrow everybody's going home, because that's not going to happen," Maketa said. "We have a crime scene in there. We have fire in there. We have downed power lines in there. We have trees falling each time there's a gust of wind, that are badly damaged. We have heavy equipment, bulldozers, fire trucks, water tankers, constantly moving through those roads."

The sheriff's office has been escorting residents to their homes for emergencies, at least one of whom Maketa said used it as a ruse and then refused to leave. Maketa said the escorts will continue, though deputies will arrest any who won't leave.

Officials are working on a plan to let residents visit their homes, or the ruins of their homes, on a non-emergency basis, Maketa said. They will be accompanied by firefighters and other emergency officials as fire commanders deem individual areas safe. Details have not been finalized. Officials also are considering giving residents vehicle placards to allow them access, but that is also not finalized.

Roads must be inspected and repaired. Building inspectors are going house-to-house, ensuring those standing are safe to enter.

Maketa said he also doesn't want anyone to jeopardize the criminal investigation into the fire's cause.

"Some of those that are starting to cool down, that we do feel the most comfortable with, are adjacent to what I consider a crime scene until proven otherwise, so I'm not real anxious to get people in there yet," Maketa said.

"Everybody .. is working long hours, long days, to get people in there, but we're not close. We have a lot of work to do."

"I don't want people to get this false sense of security because they look up there and don't see a plume of smoke. It's still not safe."

After Sunday's news conference, Maketa met with several dozen residents, away from reporters, to address their concerns.

One frustrated resident, who identified himself only as Ray, said the fire came nowhere near his Herring Road home, and with it sitting empty, he worries about burglars. Four homes in the evacuation area have been burglarized, Maketa said.

"There's hardly any trees. It's open area. Why is it you can't move that line over and let another 150 families into that area?" he said.

Other residents, however, were rolling with the punches.

"I think people have to be patient. They have to understand there's a lot of people coordinating these efforts," said Linda Frost. "There's so much to deal with and there's a lot of coordination that has to take place."

"I'd love to go home. I'd love to water my plants," said resident Beth Cooley.

And, as evidenced by the crowds lining streets to thank firefighters, there's plenty of gratitude to go with the frustration.

Nikki Connon was evacuated during last year's Waldo Canyon fire. So she decided to bake a cake for the incident commander, saying "Thank you Rich Harvey."

Harvey has worked a lot of fires, including last year's Waldo Canyon blaze, but said it was his first "thank you" cake.

"The outpouring of support from the community for the firefighters has been great," he said. "There's no way to say how much we appreciate it. It's been phenomenal and we're touched."

Copyright 2013 - The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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