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Firefighters make progress against Colo. fire

By By Greg Botelho and George Howell
Published On: Jun 16 2013 01:11:24 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 17 2013 05:19:38 AM CDT
Firefighters save home in Colorado Springs
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (CNN) -

The hundreds of firefighters battling a huge blaze near Colorado Springs, Colorado, had a good night, the federal official overseeing the fight said Sunday.

It was "nothing backwards, all forward," incident commander Rich Harvey said.

The 16,000-acre fire is now 65% contained, he said.

"There's still a lot of (small fires) out there to get still," he said. The plan for Sunday was to "mop up smokes" and maintain the perimeter.

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said it will take some time before residents will be allowed to go home permanently.

"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 is a gust of wind," he said, adding he was calling it a crime scene until proven otherwise.

He also said he didn't want people to get a false sense of security because there no longer a big plume of smoke.

The news came after about 800 firefighters went on an offensive, with a boost from the weather.

The weather helped as some rain, more clouds and less wind contributed to marked progress Friday. That continued into Saturday, as defined by a few simple measures: no more structures destroyed, no more area burned and more inroads corralling what's left of the fire.

There was a 30% chance of scattered afternoon thunderstorms, the National Weather Service said Sunday.

In the first few days after the fire broke out, crews had zero containment on the Black Forest Fire as it ravaged woods and neighborhoods. County spokesman Dave Rose told CNN it appeared to be the most destructive in the history of Colorado -- a state that's all too familiar with devastating wildfires.

But each of Harvey's updates over the weekend indicated victories for firefighters, as the percentage of acres where the fire was controlled grew from 5% Friday morning to 65% contained by Sunday morning.

What's left behind, in some areas, "looks like a nuclear bomb went off," according to Maketa.

He said Sunday that crime in the wake of the fire was low -- four burglaries and two other minor incidents.

As of Saturday afternoon, authorities had counted 473 structures totally lost due to the 4-day-old blaze, with another 17 partially damaged. Two people had died.

The speed and intensity of the flames created a pattern where, for the most part, homes either were destroyed or escaped unscathed, Maketa explained Saturday.

In some areas, he said, there's no number on the house, no mailbox and virtually no other signs that someone lived there just a few days ago.

"You can't even recognize where there was a house or some other kind of structure," the sheriff said. "That is the level of incineration and destruction that took place in some areas."

The prospect of progress is all the more appreciated, given the other wildfires still burning in Colorado.

The Royal Gorge Fire, southwest of Colorado Springs, was 40% contained after a week in which it scorched more than 3,200 acres, including a beloved carousel and at least 20 buildings, according to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

"It's burned to a cinder," he said Friday of the area.

The governor has declared a disaster emergency in Rocky Mountain National Park, northwest of Denver, due to the Big Meadows Fire that's burned hundreds of acres there.

The latest flare-up is the Ward Gulch Fire in the western part of the state. No structures are reported destroyed yet in that blaze, but gusty winds, low humidity and warm weather have firefighters on edge.

While all those fires pose dangers in their own ways, the Black Forest Fire is still by far the biggest and the most dangerous, which is why thousands in that area remain evacuated, because their homes remain in areas where it is too perilous to return.

Said Maketa: "We're hoping to gain inches each day to get people's lives back to normal, where it can be returned to normal."

CNN's George Howell reported from Colorado Springs, and Steve Almasy wrote in Atlanta. CNN's Greg Botelho contributed to this report.

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