Colo. fire evacuees get another chance to check on homes but warned to be ready to flee again

By P. Solomon Banda, AP
Friday, September 10, 2010

Colo. fire evacuees cautiously allowed back home

BOULDER, Colo. — Crews held a wildfire near Boulder at bay Friday, allowing some 2,000 evacuees to return home with a warning to be prepared to flee again.

Winds picked up again Friday with gusts of up to 30 mph, and residents have been warned to keep an eye on the weather and how it might affect the fire. Without power or phones, officials would have a hard time warning anyone who stayed if the fire threatened their neighborhood again. An area where at least 169 homes have burned was still off limits.

Evacuees have been out of their homes for four days, but Tom Bechkey, a geologist, didn’t think it was worth returning.

“There’s no power, no phone, no gas, no nothin’. Even staying up there is futile,” Bechkey said at the YMCA fire shelter, where about a dozen evacuees watched a morning fire briefing on television.

Susan DiPrima returned to her two-story log house with a view of the city with a spring in her step.

“It’s here! It’s still here!” the retiree said with elation as she entered her house with an Associated Press reporter. Less than half a mile from her home below Sugarloaf Mountain, the ground was scorched and trees were blackened and ashy. She had been told earlier that her home had survived.

Firefighters had worried strong overnight winds could fan the 6,385-acre blaze, and officials put 9,000 residents in the city of Boulder on alert for possible evacuations. But containment lines built around 45 percent of the fire’s 20-mile-perimeter held despite the winds.

Boulder officials said Friday that residents should remain alert, but Jim Thomas, the head of the fire management team, said he was somewhat confident there was no threat to the university town.

“Our optimism is much better right now,” he said.

About 950 firefighters from 20 states were battling the blaze, which has cost $4 million to fight so far. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries such as a broken finger, but no one has been seriously hurt by the blaze.

The loss of homes surpassed that of the 2002 Hayman fire in southern Colorado, which destroyed 133 homes and 466 outbuildings.

Insurers had no immediate estimate on damages. Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, said the blaze affected mostly primary residences, not vacation cabins, so the homes burned are more likely to be insured.

Dubbed the Fourmile Canyon fire, the fire erupted Monday and quickly left smoking rubble in mountain neighborhoods filled with a mix of million-dollar homes and modest ranches.

Other parts of central and eastern Colorado also remained under a red flag warning Friday, meaning conditions were ripe for fire. Calmer weather was expected to follow and fire managers hoped to have the fire fully contained in the next three to five days.

Firefighters believe the blaze was human-caused, but exactly how it started remained under investigation. Authorities were looking at whether a vehicle crashed into a propane tank and set it off.

About 3,500 people have been out of their homes since Monday.

When DiPrima arrived back at home perched on a hillside, she quickly looked around and then set to work removing rotting food from her refrigerator, something she had longed to do while evacuated.

“Actually, not bad,” she said opening the refrigerator. Then she peeked into freezer. “Not good.”

Outside, she found half a dozen cold cinders on her deck. Looking at the damage through binoculars, DiPrima marveled, “Oh God, you can see the fire.

“I didn’t know it got so close,” she said. “Holy cow! We are so lucky.”

Associated Press writers Ben Neary and Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS size of DiPrima’s house.)

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