Colorado SpringsNewsPublic Safety

El Paso County declares disaster, urges state to take command of defiant, wind-fueled blaze

Authors: Ellie Mulder, The Gazette, Rachel Riley, The Gazette - April 18, 2018 - Updated: April 18, 2018

Black smoke from a fire was seen billowing from just past mile marker 117 in Hanover County on April 17. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

El Paso County signed a disaster declaration Tuesday night and is urging the state to take command of a wind-fueled blaze that started along Interstate 25 in the southern part of the county, burned at least 10 structures, including homes, and prompted mandatory evacuations of about 300 residents and multiple rescues.

The so-called 117 fire, whipped by winds gusting from 50 to 60 mph, defied firefighters to the extent that county officials couldn’t estimate how many acres or houses had burned, how many people had been rescued, injured or both and whether reports of burned livestock were accurate.

“It’s moving so fast right now, our number one piece is life safety,” incident commander Jim Schanel said at a 5 p.m. news conference. “We’re trying to get as many people evacuated as quickly as we can. We’ll go back behind that and try to protect structures, but this thing is moving way too fast at this point.”

It was too windy to safely fly with Bambi Buckets to dump water on the blaze, Sheriff Bill Elder said.

“Mother Nature has a one-up on us,” Schanel said. “We are doing the best we can.”

One sheriff’s patrol car was destroyed by flames, Elder said. A fire engine was heavily damaged.

Underscoring the dangerously dry and windy conditions, the county upgraded fire restrictions from Stage I to Stage II in unincorporated areas Tuesday evening, effective immediately.

The restrictions prohibit all open fires and open burning, including smoking outdoors, as well as sales and use of fireworks. People can smoke only in an enclosed vehicle or building.

Multiple fires in the region have created an “extreme drain on resources,” Schanel said. “Even though the fire was moving pretty quickly, we called for help right away, and it wasn’t available. We’re working with the resources we have. It’s limited, which makes it very challenging.”

Multiple agencies, including the Colorado Springs Fire Department and Fort Carson, responded to help fight the fire.

County Public Works deployed three graders and two fuel trucks to help fight the fire, the county said in a tweet. Officials requested 15 more tenders, the tankers that carry water.

More than 200 firefighters responded to help battle the blaze, as well as 40 to 50 law enforcement personnel and other “support personnel,” Elder said Tuesday night.

Fort Carson “agreed to stop training exercises tomorrow so that they can devote resources to the fight,” Elder said. “That’s great news for us. As we move into that next operational period, we need to have as many fresh resources as we can available.

“Right now, we’re still in a rescue mode and a search mode. We’re not gaining any ground on containment in any way, so it’s going to be a long night for the firefighters that are on the line, but we think we have enough resources to at least engage.”

Firefighters have had to rescue multiple people, Schanel said. “We have done some rescues today. I’m not going to say any more than that,” he said.

Elder later said, “We’ve had a few minor human injuries.”

Some animals also were injured, said Jacqueline Kirby, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.

An evacuation center was set up at Fountain Valley Baptist Church at 500 W. Alabama Ave. in Fountain. Shortly before 9:30 p.m., it was upgraded to an overnight shelter.

Evacuated residents could take small animals to the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, and the Norris-Penrose Event Center was accepting large animals.

As of about 8 p.m., the shelter was caring for five dogs from evacuated homes, and three horses had been brought to the event center, said Humane Society spokeswoman Gretchen Pressley.

Hanover School District 28 schools were in the mandatory evacuations and will be closed Wednesday.

“We have a dangerous situation here,” Schanel said. “Hopefully the wind will subside for tonight and we get a little bit of a weather change …”

Anyone with questions about the fire can contact the county’s call center at 575-8888.

Elsewhere across Colorado, a nearby fire prompted pre-evacuation orders for the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office said in a tweet. Pre-evacuation orders were also issued for homes in the area from the El Paso County line to the 6000 block of Overton Road.

“At this time, the Pueblo Chemical Depot chemical stockpile is safe and secure,” the depot said in a tweet about 9:30 p.m.

But five homes were destroyed in a Pueblo County fire near U.S. 50 East and Baxter Road, KKTV reported. A firefighter and a deputy were being treated for smoke inhalation. That fire was contained by Tuesday night.

The 117 fire also was approaching the Edison fire in Lincoln County, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office reported.

Three fires scoured Douglas County, one of which burned three homes in Castle Rock and another that spurred pre-evacuation notices for residents near Keene Ranch, The Denver Post reported. Both of those fires were being mopped up by Tuesday night.

Another fire erupted on Teller County 1 near Cripple Creek Mountain Estates, about 5 miles north of Cripple Creek, reported Gazette news partner KKTV.

Southern Colorado is in a severe to extreme drought, tinderbox dry and being subjected to intense winds, conditions that have prompted repeated red flag warnings by the National Weather Service in Pueblo as well as a series of meetings by Colorado Springs, El Paso County and state officials, among others.

Residents repeatedly have been urged to take every precaution to prevent any spark that could start a wildfire.

Ellie Mulder, The Gazette

Ellie Mulder, The Gazette

Rachel Riley, The Gazette

Rachel Riley, The Gazette