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After days of hell, progress made fighting ruinous wildfire near Colorado Springs

By Greg Botelho and George Howell, CNN
updated 2:09 AM EDT, Sun June 16, 2013
Plumes of smoke rise above Del Norte Peak in Colorado on Sunday, June 23. Fires have been burning across Colorado since early June. Plumes of smoke rise above Del Norte Peak in Colorado on Sunday, June 23. Fires have been burning across Colorado since early June.
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Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: At least three other significant wildfires are burning around Colorado
  • Firefighters are "optimistic" after making inroads battling Black Forest Fire in central Colorado
  • An official estimates 45% containment, up from 5% the previous morning
  • 473 structures have been destroyed, 17 partially damaged and two people have died

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Colorado Springs, Colorado (CNN) -- The firefighters are on the offensive.

Over several hellish days, the Black Forest Fire singed more than 15,000 acres north of Colorado Springs. What's left behind, in some areas, "looks like a nuclear bomb went off," according to El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa.

Then came some rain, more clouds, less wind and -- very much related to all of that -- 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.

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"Today, we're optimistic," said Rich Harvey, the federal incident commander overseeing the fight.

Then, as if addressing the fire itself, he added, "We're ready for it ... Show yourself, we'll be there to fight right back."

In the first few days after the first broke out, for still unexplained reasons, 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.

Residents hope for best, brace for worst

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

The reason for that mix -- why, for the most part, homes were either destroyed or escaped unscathed -- was the speed and intensity of the flames, Maketa explained Saturday.

In some areas, there's no number on the house, no mailbox and next-to-no other signs that someone had lived there, just a few days ago.

Gallery: Wildfire photographer Kari Greer goes inside the inferno

"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."

But things changed for the better Friday. In the morning, the blaze was 5% contained. By evening, it was 30%.

That pivotal number continued to improve through midday Saturday, when Harvey said there was 45% containment.

Video shows firefighters fending off fire from house's deck

Not just that, but authorities are noticing fewer hotspots and fewer flare-ups than they have in days. All of it is positive news, even as Harvey warns that there's still material sitting on the ground, waiting to be burned, if conditions suddenly change or firefighters let down their guard.

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 temperatures 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.

"It's been a pretty good emotional roller coaster," said Chris Schroeder, one of those who live in the Black Forest Fire evacuation zone and now has little to do except hope and wait.

Woman records wildfire evacuation

Getting him and others off of that wild ride, by saving their homes, remains the primary mission of those on the front lines of the blaze.

More than 1,000 personnel -- more than at any point this week -- were part of the firefighting effort Saturday. They included boots on the ground, as well as helicopters and tankers overhead.

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."

Study warns of continued wildfires in western U.S.

CNN's George Howell reported from Colorado Springs, and Greg Botelho wrote in Atlanta.

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